Saturday, May 14, 2011

Silver - A Glittering Success!

I get quite a lot of email from Indie writers asking advice on how to sell their books, and I’m coming around to eBook guru Joe Konrath's view that the best advice is DON’T WRITE SHIT. I’m thinking of using that as my screen saver!

One writer who got in touch with me at the end of January was Steven Savile. Steven’s an interesting one because like Joe and me he is a professional writer with a respectable track record. He had a US book deal for his novel Silver, which was released in hardcover in the US and also published in Spain, Germany, France and Poland. As well as writing several novels he has a pretty impressive TV CV – he’s written for top shows like Primeval, Torchwood and Doctor Who.

Back in January Steven was thinking about self-publishing Silver on Kindle and was looking for advice. I wasn’t much help other than repeating the same old mantra – price is everything – and pointing him in the direction of Joe Konrath’s blog. Joe should be the first port of call for any Indie writer – his blog has all the information you need to get started.

Well, four months have passed and yesterday when I looked at the UK Kindle bestseller list what do I see nestling between my books Hard Landing (Number 6) and The Basement (Number 8)? Yes, at Number 7 was Steven’s book, with a brilliant cover and 35 reviews, mainly four star and five star.

I think that’s amazing – to go from thinking about publishing an eBook to being in the UK Kindle Top 10 in just four months. So what’s the key to Steven’s success?

First, I think the cover is great. And he’s written a brilliant product description, which is one of the keys to getting a reader to part with his money. Your product description is, after the cover, the main selling tool, and I am surprised that so many Indies don’t spend more time getting them right.

This is what Steven has - ‘There is a plague coming....For forty days and forty nights fear shall savage the streets. Those steeped in sin shall burn. The dying begins now.

‘With this chilling message a wave of terror unlike anything the world has ever seen sweeps the streets of Europe. Thirteen martyrs burn themselves alive in thirteen major cities simultaneously.

‘And this is just the beginning.

‘A religious cult calling itself the Disciples of Judas has risen in the Middle East. They twist the words of ancient prophecies to drive home the fear. Everything you believe in will be proved wrong. Everything you hold true will fail.

‘Day by day the West wakes to increasingly harrowing acts of terror. As fear cripples the capitals of Europe, the only question is where will be the next to fall? London? Rome? Berlin?

‘In a race against time - believing the terrorists intend to assassinate the Pope - Sir Charles Wyndham's unique Special Ops team, codename Ogmios, track a labyrinthine course through truth, shades of truth and outright lies that takes them from the backstreets of London to the shadow of Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin and all the way into the heart of the Holy See itself.’

That’s great, it really makes you want to read the book. I have to say that if it was me, I’d have put the word count and approximate number of pages there, because I think readers like to know how long a book is.

He also has a bloody good author description, too, which I think is one of the keys to selling. Readers like to know something about the person they’re giving their hard-earned money to. Steven has this – ‘Steven Savile was a runner up in the 2000 British Fantasy Awards, a winner of a 2002 Writers of the Future Award, and the 2008 Scribe Award for Best Young Adult Novel for his novel Primeval: Shadow of the Jaguar. He has written for Dr Who, Torchwood, Stargate, Primeval and other popular media franchises, including roleplaying games and comics. He has a TV series in development in the US and along with long-time collaborator Steven Lockley he has begun work on a series of short supernatural mystery stories featuring the Sally Reardon, a young forensics investigator coming to terms with her psychic gift. The first two stories in the series, Of Time and Dust and Missing are out now, with the third in the series, Deadlines, due out soon.

‘During the month of April Bad Press will be releasing special editions of Steve's original fiction for 70p, beginning with OUTCASTS, a psychological horror novel about a good man's descent into madness, and a series of four omnibuses of his short fiction ranging from horror, crime, and thrillers to science fiction and magical realism, displaying the incredible versatility of this talented young British writer.

‘Silver is the first in an on-going series of adventures built around the Ogmios Team, and has been published in the US, Spain, Poland, France and Germany in hardcover. Gold, the second in the series, will follow in the Autumn of 2011.’

But a good cover and product description alone doesn’t guarantee sales, even when sold at a low price. Steven had gone for the Amazon minimum of 99 cents, equivalent to 68p in the UK. So how does a writer new to eBooks get noticed? And how does he get his book into the UK Kindle Top 10 so quickly? I got back to Steven to find out.

He told me: ‘I tried a couple of tricks to get it moving. I wrote a free short story linked into the series which I set up a gmail address for, putting it into an autoresponder - so people could get a taste for free and in the process I accumulated a list of a few hundred thriller readers who I could email and say 'Hey hope you enjoyed Ghostkiller, promise not to spam you mercilessly but thought you might be interested in knowing I've just put the full novel up to 70p in the UK' and that gave it just enough of a sustained burst to reach the top 100 thrillers, then I experimented with a couple of covers - the first was too masculine, so I went for a more generic inside the ceiling of the Vatican which did enough to hook more casual readers. Then it was a case of finding a branding for the stuff that looked good and I felt comfortable with. Really though, the blurbs, reviews etc that were already out there carried the book and it had its own sort of momentum.’

Emailing readers direct was something that had never occurred to me, so I asked Steven to explain how that worked.

He told me: ‘I used gmail because it's the easiest, but yahoo, and any other mail server works fine - I just wanted a clean address not my normal email. The idea is the same as your 'Steve's away from the office chasing a pack of Wildebeest and will be back on Friday. In the meantime if you need something urgently call George on xxx' but instead of just cutting and pasting the text in, we designed an entire ebook, cover and all, and attached a google docs link in the responder saying 'Thanks for emailing in, because certain email programs will strip attachments from what they view potential spam addresses we've put the free book here -' and put the direct link. The beauty of it was that probably around 700 or so people claimed it over the duration of a month. It's all about forward planning - I could have put Silver up straight away but I wanted enough time to pass so that these folks could grow from a dozen mail ins to several hundred. Then being a bit of a tech media junkie I read about Tesco's planned release of the Kindle and figured, okay, we're about to see a numbers explosion in the UK so let's try and time this a bit clever, hit the mailing list a week before the kindles hit Tescos and hope to get maximum visibility around the same time. It worked. Of course it couldn't work again.’

Steven’s right – timing is really important. I made such a big splash in the eBook market because I timed my sales push to coincide with Christmas Day last year because I knew that hundreds of thousand of people would be getting a Kindle as their Christmas present.

I asked Steven about his cover. Covers are vital when it comes to getting noticed, and I felt that the eBook cover was so much better than the covers that had been used on his paperback books (I’ll put them at the end of this piece).

He told me: ‘I sat down with the web designer/marketing guy from Variance (who did the US hardcover) and looked at the Spanish hardcover edition, the Polish paperback and other similar books and we burned through about a dozen alternative designs with daggers, creepy faces etc up on the top bar, but got mate's rates. He would normally charge around 500 US a cover, I paid considerably less. I have zero skills with photoshop, but a decent eye (I think) so I would keep bouncing it back saying can we tweak this, can we try that.’

Finally I asked Steven what his next project was. He told me - ‘I'm deep into Gold but took off a six week period to write something very different, Immortal, which is a something of an awakening story, think Children of Men meets The Road, which I've just wrapped up and instead of going the traditional route of sending it off to my agent and trying to place it, I've deliberately set out to do this as a Kindle original. Silver's sold almost 30,000 copies in the two months I've had it out, making it something of a game changer for me.”

I asked him what his strategy was going to be for the new book, and he told me: ‘I was up around 600-650 a day until Friday last, and sales have tanked down to 200s at a crawl this week. I'm assuming it's all good weather related so have sent the shaman out to do a rain dance. Outcasts is just beginning to move, but obviously the big test is going to come at the end of the month with Immortal, the for in the kindle original... I've been mulling the pricing on it - obviously 69p is the sweet spot, and it's working with Silver, but I don't think Immortal's going to have the same broadbase thriller appeal, like I said, it's a bleak near future thing (no sf trappings) and most likely 'slash-your-wrists' isn't the hottest genre out there ahem, so I could launch it at £1.49 so it's pulling in a quid a copy sold simply because it's going to sell less copies than Silver... or I could take a massive risk on the 69p thing... ‘

Part of Steven’s success is down to clever marketing, but the main reason that he’s doing so well is because he’s following Joe Konrath’s golden rule – DON’T WRITE SHIT.

Outcasts has been out for less than a month and is already in the Top 500. And watch out for Immortal, I’m sure it won’t be long before it’s in the Top 10!

Friday, May 13, 2011

Me On Joe Konrath's Blog

EBook guru Joe Konrath gave me the honour of posting on his blog yesterday - then the gremlins at Blogger promptly took the whole posting down for twelve hours! Anyway, it's back up now - CLICK HERE TO READ IT.

Joe and I will be working on a project together late summer - all very hush hush but I'm very excited about it!

Just in case the gremlins get to work again, this is what I posted on Joe's blog. I was pleasantly surprised at how supportive the comments were from Joe himself, and from his readers. There were 81 comments within a few hours, almost all of them favourable, but you'll have to take my word for that because the Blogger gremlins wiped them all!

Anyway, this is what I wrote -

I stand in awe of Joe and his success selling eBooks. And I’m no slouch myself – I’ve sold more than 250,000 eBooks on Kindle alone since Christmas, almost all of them in the UK. (I’m sure you remember the UK – we’re the guys whose nuts you pulled out of the fire sixty-six years ago, for which many thanks!)

Joe is at the vanguard of ePublishing, shouting from the rooftops that traditional publishing is dead and the self-publishing is the way to go. Long live the revolution!

Is he right? You know, deep down I think he probably is, but I’ve just signed a new three-book deal with my UK publisher for close to $500,000. Could I make more money doing it myself? Yes, probably. So why don’t I? Here’s the thing. I love books. Real books. I always have done. And one of the biggest kicks I get is to walk into a bookstore and see a shelf-full of my books. I’ve got more than twenty ‘real’ books in print so often I get a shelf to myself. And I get an even bigger kick if my 12-year-old daughter is with me and she can see for herself the results of Dad locking himself away on the laptop for hours on end. I never get the same kick when I see someone reading a Kindle. It’s just not the same. So I’ll be sticking with real books, for a while longer at least!

But for most writers, a traditional publishing deal just isn’t possible. It used to be that a writer could send his work off to pretty much any publishing house and someone there would read it. I came up through the ‘slush pile’ and so did most of the writers of my generation. But one by one the publishers stopped accepting unsolicited manuscripts and agents became the new gatekeepers.

Literary agents in the UK are actually quite nice people, but they are a totally different animal in the US and I do understand the frustrations writers face when trying to get an agent in America. I’ve been writing for almost a quarter of a century and in all that time I’ve only met one decent human being working as a literary agent in the States – the rest have been horrible, self-centred, arrogant shits. Pardon my French. They seem to take pleasure in denying writers access to publishers and I for one hope take pleasure in the fact that the new ePublishing route cuts them out of the loop. Good riddance, hopefully.
So I do understand why so many writers are embracing Joe’s philosophy and turning to self-publishing eBooks. But there is one cold hard fact that I don’t seem to see anywhere on the blogs and forums devoted to ePublishing. You probably won’t like hearing it, especially if you are one of the new wave of “Indie” writers. But I’m going to say it anyway. Here goes. The vast majority of self-published eBooks are bad. Worse than bad. Awful. There, I’ve said it.

By “bad” I don’t just been badly formatted or lacking originality. I mean badly written. Bad punctuation. Clich├ęd descriptions. Clunky dialogue. And here’s the thing. When I hear “Indie” writers talking about their books, all they seem to talk about is how they go about marketing their work. How they blog, how they work their Facebook contacts, how they post on the forums. I never hear them talking about how they want to improve their craft. For most of the ones I come across it’s all about the selling. I get emails all the time from “Indie” writers asking me what the secret is to selling a lot of eBooks. I don’t get any asking how they can become better writers.

Here’s another home truth that I always used to tell wannabe writers. A good book will be published, eventually, by a traditional publishing house. A bad book almost certainly won’t be. The fact that Amazon and Smashwords have no quality controls in place mean that home truth no longer applies. Any book can be published. The floodgates have opened. And I don’t think that’s a good thing.

I think of writing a book as being akin to running a marathon. Anyone who finishes a marathon deserves kudos. It’s a long haul. It’s hard work. But just because you’ve run a marathon doesn’t mean you should be running at the Olympics.

If you have written a book then you deserve a pat on the back. Well done you. But just because you’ve written a book doesn’t mean it’s good enough to be published. And just because you’ve been published doesn’t mean that people will buy it. It seems to me that the rush to embrace self-publishing means that the quality of the work has become secondary to the marketing of it.

Every “Indie” writer now has a blog, mostly pale imitations of Joe’s, they have a Facebook presence which they use to constantly push their work, (a quarter of my Facebook “friends” are writers who do nothing other than post about their books) and they spend hours on the various eBook forums. It’s all about the marketing. They ask for other writers to tag their books, they get friends and family to post favourable reviews (it’s amazing how many self-published eBooks start of with half a dozen five-star reviews on Amazon, mostly from readers who have only ever reviewed the one book) and they share Tweets with other writers. Every “Indie” writer is following the same formula. Sell, sell, sell. The quality of the work seems to have got lost in the process.

A very wise friend once told me about the Rule Of Ten Thousand. Basically he took the view that it takes ten thousand hours to acquire any skill. That’s about how long it takes to learn a foreign language, or play the piano proficiently, or play pool expertly, or become a good poker player. It applies to almost everything (except maybe free-fall parachuting).

My first book was published, by Harper Collins, but by the time I had written it I had been working as a journalist for more than ten years and so had been writing for at last 10,000 hours. To be honest, I didn’t hit my stride until my fourth book.

Let’s say you write for two hours a day. That means you hit the 10,000 hours after 5,000 days, which is what, thirteen years? And yes, that’s probably how long it has taken most writers to reach the stage where they get published. Writing for the most part is a craft. A skill that has to be learned. Very few writers published the traditional way see their first book in print. It’s often their fifth or sixth that is good enough to be published. Jack Higgins famously wasn’t published until after he’d written more than a dozen novels and he didn’t achieve any real success until his 36th – The Eagle Has Landed.

EPublishing has removed that learning curve. Now any book can be published, no matter how awful. And I think that’s bad for writers. The one or two times I have suggested that a writer spend some time improving their craft I’ve had abuse heaped on me so these days I don’t bother saying anything. Yes, “Indie” writers need to sell their work, yes marketing is important, maybe vital, but let’s not let the medium become the message. My advice to any writer who has finished their first book is to relax, take a deep breath, and start the next one. Send your first novel out to every agent there is, and see what happens. You will probably be ignored, you might get a one-line rejection, but the fact is that if the book is good then it will be picked up. Eventually. And if you can’t get an agent, maybe consider that the book isn’t very good and make the next one better. And make the one after that even better.

Once you’ve done your ten thousand hours you can consider yourself a real writer and at that point you can go back and examine your early work. You’ll probably realise how much it can be improved, or maybe that it’s simply not publishable. And if after you’ve done your ten thousand hours you still haven’t got an agent or a publishing deal, then maybe you should think about self-publishing.

Even as I write this I can feel Joe at my shoulder saying ‘What about the money?’ Yes, I know that as a self-published writer you get to keep a bigger chunk of the profits. Yes I know that it’s ridiculous that the traditional publishers keep up to 85 per cent of the money they make from selling eBooks. Yes, it is a fact that you can get an eBook up within hours but a real books takes up to a year from delivery to being on the shelves. But for me at least, being a writer is about producing quality work. Work that I can be proud of. And that takes time and effort. I’m a better writer now than when I started because I have been traditionally published for more than twenty years. I really believe that if the Kindle had been around twenty years ago and I had rushed into self-publishing I would probably have made a lot of money but wouldn’t have been anywhere near as good a writer as I am. And for me, it’s the writing that matters.