I've just had the following article published in Writing Magazine. The magazine is one of the best resources for writers who are just starting out and I definitely recommend it. YOU CAN SEE IT HERE
Anyway, here's what I wrote:
I first realised that eBooks were going to boom towards the end of 2010 when I read somewhere that the Kindle was set to become the most gifted Christmas present ever – on Christmas Day literally millions of people were going to be getting a Kindle as a present. Up until then the Kindle was something of a rarity, rarely seen in public. Amazon had opened its UK store in August 2010 but they weren’t doing much business. I had put up one of my books – Private Dancer, a story set in Thailand – on Kindle as an eBook but was only selling a few copies a week. But I realised that on Christmas Day a whole new market would open up, and I decided to take advantage of that.
I had three books – The Basement (a serial killer story, Once Bitten (a vampire story) and Dreamer’s Cat (a science fiction novel) – available as free PDF downloads on my website (www.stephenleather.com). They were books that my regular publisher, Hodder and Stoughton, had declined to publish because they were so different from my regular thrillers.
The thrillers that they publish are generally big books, both in terms of size and in scope, and would be up to 140,000 words long. The eBooks I’ve published are much shorter – for instance The Basement is just 40,000 words, which makes it a novella rather than a novel. Publishers generally don’t want to publish novellas, but they are perfect for eBooks. Publishers also prefer their writers to stick to a particular genre so that they can build a brand. When a reader buys one of my Hodder books they know they are getting a hard-edged thriller. It would cause confusion if they picked up a Stephen Leather book and discovered that it was about vampires.
I took the books, updated them, and paid for three covers by Stuart Bache who does a lot of my covers for Hodder and Stoughton. I put them on line in late October and spent two months promoting them on social networking sites and on the various Kindle forums. They went very quickly into the Amazon Top 10 and I persuaded Hodder and Stoughton to cut the price of one of my Spider Shepherd thrillers, Hard Landing, to 49p. It also tore through the rankings and by the time Christmas morning came around I had Numbers one, two, three and five in the Kindle UK bestseller list.
I had competition in the form of a special Kindle Twelve Days Of Christmas promotion where several publishers slashed the price of their eBooks over the holiday period, but even so I sold 7,000 copies on Christmas Day and another 5,000 copies on Boxing Day. In December I sold 45,000 copies in total and another 45,000 in January. I don’t think any other writer sold anywhere near as many copies in the UK over that period.
The Basement, Once Bitten and Dreamer’s Cat have sold close to 300,000 copies since they went on sale in October 2010. Generally I have been selling the books at the Amazon minimum price which is 75p (plus VAT) of which I get to keep 25p.
I originally went into self-publishing eBooks as a way of increasing my readership and there’s no doubt that my success self-publishing eBooks has fed through to increased sales of my Hodder titles. I suggested to Hodder that they cut the price of one of my titles – Hard Landing – to see what would happen to sales. Since Hodder agreed to sell Hard Landing -, the first book in my series about undercover cop Dan Shepherd - at the special promotional price of 49p they have sold almost 100,000 copies but what is more interesting is that this has fed through to increased sales of my other Dan Shepherd books which are selling at £4.99. Hodder has sold more than 35,000 copies of eBooks in the Dan Shepherd series and I’m convinced that almost all of those sales are new readers who were introduced to me through my self-published eBooks. So rather then diverting attention away from the Hodder titles, the success of my eBooks has helped boost sales of my regular thrillers.
I definitely see my eBooks as running alongside my regular thrillers. I think that what makes me different from most writers in that I am able to do both. Most writers produce a book a year, and in fact that’s how I used to work. A thriller would generally take me three months to research, seven months to write, and two months to edit. Over the past few years I have increased my output and am now writing two thrillers a year for Hodder and Stoughton – my Dan “Spider” Shepherd undercover cop series and my Jack Nightingale supernatural detective series. I find that I still have time to write other books and so am able to produce stories solely for the eBook market. I think most writers aren’t that productive and so they will follow one route – either publish with an established publisher, or publish eBooks themselves. I don’t think that many writers will be able to do both.
Also, self-publishing eBooks is very hard work. When a traditional publisher releases a book they do all the production, marketing, promotion and publicity. They edit the book, they produce the cover, they arrange press reviews, they make sure that the book is in all the stores and supermarkets, they pay for advertising. But when you self-publish, you have to do that yourself which takes a lot of time and effort. Most successful eBook authors who self-publish seem to spend almost as much time marketing and promoting their work as they do writing. Not every writer is prepared to put that amount of effort into self-promotion.
It’s important to get the pricing right when you self-publish eBooks. Basically, the lower the price you set for your work, the more copies you will sell. When you publish eBooks yourself on Amazon for the Kindle, the lowest price you can set is 99 cents in the US and 75p in the UK. The book actually sells for more than 75p in Europe as Amazon has to charge VAT on top of the price. For books costing between 99 cents and $2.99, Amazon pays the writer 35 per cent of the selling price. For books priced above $2.99, Amazon pays 70 per cent. On Smashwords, who sell books to all the various eReaders including Apple and Barnes and Noble, the minimum price is also 99 cents.
When I began self-publishing eBook last year I priced all my books at the Amazon minimum and I am sure that is one of the reasons I was so successful. People do like a bargain and there’s no doubt that cheaper book sell more than expensive books. To be honest though, I didn’t go into ePublishing to make money, I went into it to see if I could widen my readership. Yes, it’s great that I am making money from my eBooks but the original idea was to try to pull in more readers and that has worked really well.
There is a downside to selling your books cheaply, in that you run the risk of getting the wrong sort of readers. I had that experience with my book Dreamer’s Cat, a science fiction murder mystery in a future world where virtual reality is a way of life. I was selling the book at the Amazon minimum and it started getting a lot of very bad reviews, mainly because of the sexual violence in the story. What was happening was that people were buying it because it was cheap then posting bad reviews when they realised they didn’t like it. Amazon and Smashwords allow prospective buyers to download a sample before they buy, but when a book is cheap most people don’t bother. So I raised the price of Dreamer’s Cat to close to £2. Sales immediately dropped but the bad reviews pretty much stopped. Because the book was more expensive people were downloading the sample and that weeded out the people who didn’t like it.
Also, in America readers do seem to equate price with quality and many refuse to buy books at 99 cents as they assume they aren’t very good. The market in the UK definitely seems to be different on that score with readers seemingly happy to snap up a bargain.
Getting your book onto Kindle is very easy through their Kindle Digital Platform. Word document files work just fine. Getting onto Smashwords is sometimes a bit harder but there are plenty of formatters around who will help. Generally I pay between £20 and £40 to get a book formatted for Smashwords. Smashwords can provide a list of formatters.
All independent ePublishers have to be very hands-on. You have to be constantly monitoring the reviews given to your books as they can highlight problems that you might not be aware of. You have to keep an eye on sales to see what marketing techniques work and what doesn’t. Sometimes you might decide to change a cover or a product description, or perhaps start promoting on a different forum. Because Kindle and Smashwords allow you to monitor sales in pretty much real time, it’s very easy to see when you’re doing something right and when you’re doing something wrong.
The hardest part is to get your book noticed in the first place. Once your book is in the bestseller list it will sell without too much promotion. Before Christmas I spent quite a bit of time posting on the various Kindle forums and at the time there weren’t too many authors doing that so it was easy to get noticed. Unfortunately the forums have now been swamped by so-called “Indie” writers pushing their books and it’s much harder for a new writer to get noticed.
My book The Basement is still high up in the bestseller lists so that helps sell my other eBooks. That’s one of the keys to succeeding – you have to have more than one book, and ideally you need to release new books at regular intervals.
I’m working on another eBook as we speak, modestly titled The Bestseller. It’s about a writer who decides that the best way to succeed as a writer is to commit a murder and then write about it. I’m also working on a series of short stories about a Detective Inspector with the Singapore Police Force, a sort of Singaporean Poirot. I have already published four of them as short stories on Kindle and Smashwords and they’re selling quite well. I do believe that the Kindle is going to revitalize the short story.
I think that there is plenty of opportunity for other writers to start selling well on the Kindle and on the other eBook platforms. Personally I believe that most writers would benefit from a publishing deal with a proper publisher but if they can’t get a publishing deal then they should definitely look at publishing their own work.
So what advice would I offer to an author who wanted to follow in my footsteps? First write a good book. That’s easier said than done, but it’s the key to success. Most of the self-published eBooks aren’t well written, which is why most of them were rejected by agents and publishers and why the writers had no choice but to self-publish. From time to time I do read self-published eBooks and am often surprised at just how bad they are. I have just read one where the villain was described as “roofless” rather than “ruthless” in just one of a dozen mistakes I found in the first chapter. In my opinion any writer worth his or her salt has to have been writing for several years before he or she can expect to be producing work that’s publishable. It’s a craft that has to be learned and I’m afraid there are no short cuts. I was a journalist with millions of words in print before I wrote my first novel.
Once you’ve written your book, get it edited by someone else, ideally a professional editor. Typos and grammatical marks make you look like an amateur. And don’t scrimp on your cover. A cheap and cheerful Photoshopped cover marks you out an as amateur. Get a professional to design it for you.
If your book is good and your cover works, then it’s down to marketing and luck. You have to promote your book in any way that you can, but from then on it’s all a question of whether or not that all-important word-of-mouth recommendation kicks in. And I’m afraid a lot of the time it’s down to luck.
Next Christmas I’ll be working again, but this time I know I’ll have competition. There will be hundreds, possibly thousands, of other writers all ready to promote their own books to the new wave of Kindle owners. It should be fun!