Category Archives: eBooks

The Introvert’s Guide To Basic Book Marketing

A BRIEF INTRODUCTION, PART I

I dithered for a while whether I wanted to post this or not, but this blog post from David Gaughran made up my mind. Key quote:

“It’s obvious from talking to prospective self-publishers that marketing is the task that causes the most stress and trepidation. Of course, scammy operators know this. They prey on these fears by offering a series of magic bullets at exorbitant prices. And they don’t work. At all!”

There are a lot of new and fledgling writers out there, and there are almost as many scam artists hoping to make a buck off them. Or there are new writers who will try to waste years on the traditional publishing roulette in the hopes that their publisher will “take care” of all the marketing, little realizing that they only have a slim chance of obtaining a book contract, and that even if they do get a book contract they’ll still have to do all the marketing themselves. So I post this in hopes that someone undecided will see it, and realize that it is not necessary to spend ridiculous sums of money for someone else to upload your book to Amazon and someone else to do your book marketing, nor is it necessary to sign up for the parade of misery that is a traditional book contract from a large publisher.

Not when all it takes to do it yourself is some free software, an Internet connection, and a little time.

A BRIEF INTRODUCTION, PART II

In 2013 I talked to a lot of traditionally published writers, some of them veterans with over a dozen books under their belts, and I’ve noticed many of them have a horror of self-publishing. The root of that horror often seems to stem from fear of having to “market” their books, of having to become a “huckster” selling books to people. Good work, they say, good books, will get noticed for their own merits.

The problem is that many (though not all) writers are introverts, and that the mindset I described above is essentially a form of magical thinking.

To explain why this is magical thinking, let us use a stereotype as a metaphor. A lot of writers have “nice guy” syndrome – basically like the cliched nice guy from a romantic comedy film wondering why the hot girl goes with the jerk instead of him. The objective truth is that the nice guy has no one to blame but himself, because he didn’t compete. He sat around waiting for the hot girl to notice all his awesome qualities, but the jerk actively pursued the hot girl. He showed up and played the game. Or to use a non-romance related metaphor, the employee who quietly does his work and keeps his head down is less likely to get promoted than an employee who actively socializes with his co-workers and supervisors.

This is neither fair nor just, but most of humanity does not make its decisions based on objective truth – it makes them based on social connections. This includes deciding which book to buy.

However, as mentioned above, many writers are introverts, and for introverts, talking to people is often tiring, exhausting, or even terrifying. I think some of the writers I’ve talked to think of “book marketing” as spending endless hours on Facebook and Twitter (or, God forbid, Google+), bellowing “Buy my book! Buy my book!” over and over again to an audience of unhearing spambots.

If you’re marketing your book this way, you’re doing it wrong. Book marketing isn’t about the face-to-face hard sell, but the soft landing. The one fundamental rule is this:

DO NOT BE NEEDY.

Needy is death. Remember that guy you met in college who wanted everyone to read his novel? Don’t be that guy. (Full disclosure: I used to be that guy.) Never, ever ask someone to buy your book – but leave as many doors unlocked and and as many windows open as possible if they decide to do so of their own will.

Below are a collection of low-energy guidelines and suggestions I’ve found for marketing books. None of them are intrusive, obnoxious, or needy, and none of them take much time or energy. Most of them are entirely passive, and several of them, in fact, you can ignore once you’ve set up. That said, none of them are individually very effective. But in aggregate, they really add up, and ebooks are a business of aggregation. If you sell 5 copies a day of one book, that’s not very many. But if you have 20 books and they each sell 5 copies a day…well, that adds up.

We’ll divide the tips into eight sections – Book Structure, Retailer Categories, Website, Free Stuff, Social Media, Newsletter, Sales & Ads, and Obtaining & Dealing With Reviews.

A BRIEF INTRODUCTION, PART III – A NOTE ON PRONOUNS

I wrote this guide using the structure “I do this, and I do that”, rather than “you should do this, and you should do that.” Advice is always troublesome, so rather than giving advice, I shall merely say “this is what I do” and leave you, the reader, to make your own judgments about the best course of action.

PART I – BOOK STRUCTURE

Here, I’m not talking about the plot structure of my book. Rather, I mean the physical layout of my ebook – what links or items to include. Many writers include a list of hyperlinks to their other books at the end of their ebook, along with a link to their email newsletter and website. This is commonly called “back matter” among self-published writers, and is very useful. Most of the traffic to my website comes from these links. Traditionally published books have done this for years. Flip to the end of a book, and you’ll usually see a short bio of the author, along with a list of his other books. I believe many romance novels used to include an ordering form for additional romance titles in the back.

Basically, if someone reads my book all the way to the end, they’ll likely want to read other books I have written. So it is wise to leave information at the end of the book that will help them to do so.

However, it’s important to put the back matter IN THE BACK! Don’t put it in the front of the book! (Full disclosure: I used to make this mistake.) Most ebook retailers let readers sample the first 10 or 20 percent of the book, and if the front of my book is heavy-loaded with your About The Author and Other Books By The Author chapters, I am losing the valuable space I need for my story to capture the reader’s attention.

So put the back matter in the back. (The best advice, they say, is always obvious.)

My back matter usually has three sections – Bonus Chapter, About The Author, and Other Books By The Author. The Bonus Chapter is, as the name implies, simply the first chapter of the next book in the series. For example, GHOST IN THE BLOOD, the third book of my THE GHOSTS series, has the first chapter of GHOST IN THE STORM, the fourth book in the series, at the very end, along with a hyperlink to the book’s page on my website. Sometimes I will put in two bonus chapters if I think it makes a better impression, or combine parts of two chapters – at the end of FROSTBORN: THE FIRST QUEST (the prequel novel to the FROSTBORN series) I put all of Chapter 1 and part of Chapter 3 of the next book as the bonus chapter. The end of GHOST IN THE MASK has all of Chapter 1 and the first half of Chapter 2.

About The Author has a pithy little biography paragraph I wrote for myself, along with links to my website, my Facebook page, and my newsletter. Generally, the shorter and the wittier I can be with my author bio, the better. The less I talk about myself, and the more I talk about my books, the better (see below).

Other Books By The Author is where I list my other books, all with hyperlinks to my website. I used to make a mistake here for years – I simply listed off my books without any text or explanation. I found a better way when I read William King’s excellent KORMAK and THE TERRARCH CHRONICLES series – Mr. King has a short writeup for each of his series at the end of each of his books. If I can write compelling ad copy (and if I am writing my own book descriptions, I should be), then I can write up a short, punchy, compelling description of my additional books here.

One important point – the hyperlinks should go to my website, not to individual book retailers! All the ebook retailers get annoyed if I have direct hyperlinks to their competitors in their ebooks, and Apple in particular is quite picky about this and will block without warning any books with links to competing retailers. So all hyperlinks in my book should go to my own website. The individual page on my site can then have hyperlinks to all the different retailers.

Additionally, I also include a hyperlink to the sign-up form on my newsletter. More on this later – a newsletter is a vital tool if used properly.

This brings us to the topic of the cover art. I have gotten to the point where I can produce adequate covers with the GIMP, (an ebook that had one of my self-made covers was #1 in its category in both Amazon US and Amazon UK, and got up to a sales rank of about #1,400 total on Amazon UK) but I still prefer to hire it out, since while I can wrap my head around layout and the technical aspects of the GIMP, I simply have no sense of aesthetics. To paraphrase Treebread, I have a mind of metal and wheels, not one of color palettes, layouts, and gradients.

The rule of thumb for cover art is this: it should feature attractive people doing something related, however tangentially, to the topic of the book. As ever in matters of art, there are exceptions (see the covers for my FROSTBORN series), but this is a good guideline. Additionally, I am writing a series, the covers of the books across the series should have a consistent visual look. That means the same sort of fonts, the same sort of general look and feel, and so forth. The reader should be able to tell at a glance that a book is part of the FROSTBORN series or THE GHOSTS SERIES.

PART II – RETAILER CATEGORIES

Deciding what category to put my book into is critically important at Amazon, Apple, and Google Play. It’s also important at the other retailers, but both Barnes & Noble and Kobo tend to give greater weight to traditionally published books, so while it is still important it is less critical there. Additionally, B&N and Kobo both do “co-op”, which means they charge for better placement on their website, so naturally the higher spots tend to be dominated by traditionally published books.

The reason choosing the right category is so important is the bestseller list. Amazon displays the top 100 books in each category, and Apple displays the top 200. (I believe Amazon Australia shows the top 200 for some reason.) Quite a lot of people browse those lists, so if your book as an attractive cover (see above) you might persuade a browser to take a look inside your book. And if the front of your book catches their attention and isn’t larded up with a lot of hyperlinks or extraneous material (again, see above), you might get them to buy the book.

This also applies to free books. Just because a book is free doesn’t guarantee that someone will download it, and it certainly doesn’t guarantee that anyone will read it. But if my book is sitting at, say, #11 on the Epic Fantasy free list, there’s a good chance someone will download it and at least give it a try. And if I have links to the rest of the books in the series at the end (see above), they might go on to buy those additional books if they liked the first one.

It is also a good idea to rotate categories every so often. Some categories are more competitive than others – for instance, the Windows category for nonfiction computer books on Amazon is brutally competitive, but Unix Networking is less visited. You might wonder why I want to shift my books to a less-trafficked category, but it’s better to be #1 in a less-visible category than #79 on a more popular one. My books will stay in the top twenty of the list for longer, while they will be quickly pushed off the more popular list.  Paradoxically, this means my book might well be seen and purchased by more people. In May and June of 2014, all four of my FROSTBORN books sat at the top of Amazon UK’s Arthurian Fantasy list for weeks, and consequently sold much more copies than they would have otherwise.

“But, Jonathan Moeller,” you might protest, “your book is Epic Fantasy, not Dark Fantasy! Isn’t that cheating?”

No. Leaving aside the whole academic discussion on whether or not “genres” are arbitrary constructs for marketing reasons, the fact is that most books overlap one or more of the Amazon categories. To cite an example, JONATHAN STRANGE & MR. NORRELL could legitimately go into Fantasy, Historical Fantasy, Military Fiction, War Fiction, Regency, Romance, and several others. I count my FROSTBORN books as Arthurian Fantasy because the premise of the series is that the survivors of the fall of King Arthur’s realm went through a magical portal to a world where magic works, and spent the next thousand years building a civilization and a kingdom of their own.

In fact, when I upload a book, Amazon explicitly tells me to pick two or more categories for my book, and I could likely be assigned a third, depending on what keywords I pick for my book. There isn’t currently an official Fantasy > Sword & Sorcery category in KDP, but if I pick “sword & sorcery” as one of my keywords, I might get my book into that category. You can find a list of the keywords and the categories they trigger here. One book could quite easily fit into multiple categories – there’s a reason Amazon lets me pick two categories for my book and Barnes & Noble and Kobo let me pick up to five.

Rotating categories can then give a bump to my book, especially if I move it to a category where it hasn’t been seen before. This isn’t the sort of thing I should do daily (especially since it takes a few days for the change to register anyway) but every few months is a good idea.

Choosing categories is also useful at Apple, primarily because the iBookstore is available in so many countries, and Apple has longer bestseller lists than Amazon. Amazon lists the first 100 books in a bestseller category, but Apple lists the first 200. Additionally, in some of the smaller iBookstore markets, it takes fewer sales to sit at the top of the lists. In the summer of 2013, I had several of my books in the top 20 for Epic Fantasy in Ireland, New Zealand, Sweden, and Denmark in the iBookstore. The actual numbers were not large, but the market was small enough that only a few sales pushed the books to the top of the list – and the increased visibility meant more sales.

PART III – AUTHOR WEBSITE

The most important function of an author website is to make it as easy as possible for people to get to the author’s books.

My author website doesn’t have to be elaborate. A domain I own is ideal, and web hosting has gotten quite cheap. A $10 monthly plan will meet the needs of most writers, and if my traffic suddenly explodes for whatever reason, I can always upgrade.

I try to make my website as book-centric as possible. Every book gets its own page with cover art, with links to all the various ebook retailers. To cut down on the complexity of navigation, I gave each series its own page, and then assigned the individual books to sub-pages within the master page. (I use WordPress for my website, so this is easy to do.) I also make sure to have the registration form for my new release website as prominently displayed as possible.

I also have my new-release newsletter signup form prominently available. A new-release newsletter is a valuable tool, as we’ll see below.

I also use Amazon Affiliates to make links. Basically, the idea behind Amazon Affiliates is that I select an Amazon item, and Amazon generates a little bit of code. I stick the code on my website, and it displays as a graphical link with an image. If someone clicks on the link and buys the book, Amazon kicks back a little percentage (like, between 4% to 12%, depending on how many items get sold through my affiliate links) back to you. It’s a nice way to conveniently generate links and get a little extra money on the side, though unfortunately Amazon Affiliates is not available in every US state due to local tax laws. (Even then, it’s still a good way to make quick links if the author sells most of his books through Amazon.)

Basically, my website should make it as easy as possible for people to get to my books.

PART IV – FREE STUFF

Giving away free stuff is an effective tactic, but if only employed properly.

The easiest and most effective way to use free stuff is to make the first book in a series free. The idea is that the reader will read the free book, like it, and move on to the paid sequels. The most common way to do this is to set the book’s price free on Smashwords and Google Play, and eventually the bots at the other retailers (especially Amazon) will catch on and price-match the book to free. Generally, I do this when a series gets up to four books. Anything less than four books, and I don’t think it generates the necessary bang for the buck.

It’s a good idea to make a complete story free, rather than a cliffhanger. I’ve had the best luck when I’ve made complete novels free, rather than stories that end with cliffhangers. In fact, I’ve come to suspect people hate cliffhangers in general, so I try to avoid them whenever possible. In fact, people especially hate free cliffhangers that have a paid sequel, and a substantially minority will express their opinions at length on the reviews page. So when using free books as a promotional tool, I think it is best to give a complete story away for free, a story that nevertheless leaves open the possibility for a sequel. That way, if the reader likes the characters in the free book, he may well continue on to the additional paid books in the series.

If a book is a stand-alone work, with no sequels, I think making it free is a waste of time. If I were to write, say, a stand-alone science fiction novel, a reader finishing it would have very little reason to try one of my fantasy novels. Most likely he would want more of the characters and the setting from the science fiction novel.

I also give away free short stories to my newsletter subscribers. Every time I release a new book, I also write a tie-in short story and release it at the same time. In my newsletter, I include a Smashwords coupon code that lets the newsletter subscribers get the story for free as a bonus. The funny part is, I suspect many of them simply buy the story outright rather than using the coupon code to sideload it onto their phones and tablets. But it makes for a nice bonus for newsletter subscribers.

To sum up, giving away things for free is a useful tool, but only if employed properly.

PART V – SOCIAL MEDIA

This is where a writer can really shoot himself in the foot, or (if he works at it even a little) in the face. If you’ve paid attention to the news over the last year, undoubtedly you have seen many stories of a person saying something controversial on Twitter or Facebook, only to have the Internet fall upon their head like a ton of bricks.

I don’t want to be that person, and I am pretty sure you don’t, either.

The three keys to using social media effectively is to always remember this: use the pronouns “I”, “me”, and “mine” as little as possible, never, ever discuss personal problems, and never, ever forget that absolutely anything you type into Facebook or Twitter is theoretically visible to EVERYONE IN THE ENTIRE WORLD. If I am not comfortable having something I write on Twitter appear on a Jumbotron over Times Square on New Year’s Eve, then I probably should not be writing it.

The reason I do not talk about myself or any personal problems is that I am not as interesting as I think I am. So I don’t talk about myself on social media. I can talk about my books, but a Facebook page or a Twitter feed that is a relentless stream of self-promotion quickly becomes dull. The exception to this is if I have a sale going (more on that below), or if I am working on the next book in a series and I know people are waiting for it. There are many documented cases of writers who take, oh, seven years or so between books (we won’t cite any examples here), so committed readers appreciate regular updates that I am in fact working on the next book.

Therefore, pick some topics that are tangentially related to your books and talk about them. Like, if a writer does historical fiction, he can talk about things related to the historical period of his books. This is a common tactic for writers who write historical romances; the clothing and fashion of a particular era (especially the Victorian and Regency eras) is a well that seemingly never runs dry. I regularly post comments on video games I am playing, or observations on technology, and those usually go over pretty well. Sometimes I write essays on the business of self-publishing or the craft of writing (like this one!), and people seem to like those as well.

Additionally, it’s a good idea to be as positive as possible. Let us be candid – the Internet is often one long howl of complaint, populated with articles like “59 Reasons The New iPhone Is The Worst Thing Ever”, which overlooks the fact that 20 years ago, any iPhone would have seemed like an object of unspeakable wonder fashioned by magical wizard-smiths. Let us be candid – it is easy to complain and snark. Complaints and snark and sarcasm are the empty calories of communication. It is much harder to be interesting, so we should strive to be interesting, even if it is more work than complaining or agreeing with whatever the hashtag du jour is.

PART VI – NEWSLETTER

A newsletter is an extremely effective tool for marketing. I would even go so far as to say it is a vital one. I use my newsletter for exactly one thing – to notify people on my email list when I have a new book out. When I have a new book out, I prepare a newsletter and send it out with links to all the different retailers that carry the book. If enough people read the newsletter and buy the book, it generates a big spike in sales, which shoots the book up in its category listing, which means more people might see the book and buy it.

This might seem like spamming, but here’s the thing – I only send the newsletter to people who have actually asked to receive it. I also make sure to prominently mention the “unsubscribe” link in every message if people find the newsletter tiresome and no longer wish to receive it.

Getting people to sign up for a newsletter is a slow process of aggregation. Basically, I have a link at the end of every book inviting people to sign up for my newsletter. I also make sure the form is displayed prominently on my web page. I started a newsletter in 2012, and by June of 2014 I had over a thousand addresses collected. So it is best not to expect sudden dramatic spikes, but instead to strive for a slow, steady collection of names.

As a bonus for newsletter subscribers (as mentioned above), I almost always include a free tie-in short story when I release a book. I have several reasons for doing this. I wanted to give newsletter subscribers a bonus as a “thank you” for subscribing. Additionally, I simply like writing short fiction for its own sake, since it presents a different set of challenges than novel-writing. I once gave away an entire short novel (FROSTBORN: THE FIRST QUEST) for free with the newsletter, but that was a lot of extra work so I don’t think I will do that too often.

As for the mechanics of sending a newsletter, it is best to use a service called a “mail provider” instead of a personal Gmail account or whatever. A legitimate mail provider will not be flagged as a spam provider, which will happen if you send, say, a thousand messages at once from a Gmail or a Yahoo account. Additionally, a mail provider provides a web form you can embed on your website to let people sign up, an easy interface for managing email addresses, and most important of all, a way to back up your collected addresses. I use one called YMLP and have been quite happy with it, while other writers of my acquaintance have used MailChimp.

PART VII – SALES & PAID ADVERTISING

Sometimes I will run a sale on a book. As I mentioned above, the first book in (most) of my series is free, but I will sometimes drop the price of the second or the third book down to $0.99 for a day or two. Additionally, I have omnibus editions of the first few books in some of my series, and sometimes I will run a one-day $0.99 sale on those.

The tricky part of sales is that they don’t work in and of themselves. Having a $0.99 sale on a book is well and good, and I need a way to notify people of it. Social media doesn’t work well for this, since most of the people who follow me on Facebook and Twitter have already read most of my books and therefore would have little interest in a sale.

This is where paid advertising comes in. Ever since the ebook revolution took off, a number of companies have started that send out daily emails of discounted or free books to their subscribers. When used in conjunction with a sale, this can have a big impact – my books GHOST IN THE FLAMES and GHOST IN THE BLOOD both got in the Top 100 of Epic Fantasy on Amazon US (which is a brutally competitive category) in November of 2013 off of a BookBub ad for CHILD OF THE GHOSTS, the free first book in the series. Most of these companies let you list your book in their newsletter.

BookBub is currently the heavyweight for ebook ad promotions. I’ve had book in BookBub four times, and all four times the free book got downloaded thousands of times, and the rest of the books in the series saw a subsequent sales bump. BookBub is fairly selective about the books they list – they need to have a good cover and a respectable number of rankings – so if a book doesn’t get in the first time, it never hurts to reapply later. (A few writers have criticized BookBub as the “new gatekeeper” of self-publishing, but I think that argument is without merit. BookBub can’t stop me from selling my book the way that a traditional publisher could, and I had sold nearly 90,000 copies of my books before I had even heard of BookBub.) I’ve also had good results with FreeBooksy, BargainBooksy, and BookGorilla.

A very effective tactic that I hinted at above is to run an ad on the free first book in the series, and then drop the price of the next book or two to $0.99 for a few days. (I first read of this tactic on the blog of author Lindsay Buroker.) Both times I tried this resulted in a big spike in sales for the entire series.

A note of caution – there are new ebook advertisers springing up all the time, and some of them are little more than scam artists (see above about predators). Generally it’s a good idea to investigate a company a little before buying an ad from it. Fortunately, Google makes this easier. I will sometimes roll the dice on a new company if the ad isn’t too expensive.

PART VIII – OBTAINING & DEALING WITH REVIEWS

New writers sometimes ask how to get reviews for their books on Amazon and Barnes & Noble and the other sites.

The answer is simple. I don’t do anything.

Generally, I have found that you can expect one review for about every 250 to 1,500 copies of a book sold. That is a pretty broad range, but it depends on the book. In fact, the lack of reviews is often a good sign. If there is something wrong with a book, like a chapter missing, people will complain immediately. I have had books that sold reasonably well for months before they received any reviews. It is good to bear in mind that it can take people weeks to read a book – my longest book was about 140,000 words, which comes to just over 7000 Kindle locations, and some people posted reviews months after they purchased it.

So reviews are like erosion – it simply takes time.

Do I ask people for reviews? Not usually. I do include a short note at the end of my book that says “If you liked this book, please consider leaving a review at your ebook retailer of choice”, and that’s it. It’s in the same short paragraph that has a link to my newsletter subscription form and Facebook page, and I suspect most of my newsletter subscriptions, Facebook follows, and book reviews come from that paragraph, so I see no harm in having that at the end of the book.

Do I change my books based on reviews? No. I wrote what I intended to write (or what my past self intended to write, since I wrote some of my books more than ten years ago), and what’s done is done. The one exception is if multiple reviews mention a serious formatting error – like the chapters are out of order, or the text inexplicably turns to gibberish halfway through. Those I try to fix immediately.

Do I ever respond to reviews? Like, if someone posts a one-star review of my book on Amazon, do I wade into the comments to argue? Absolutely not, for four reasons:

-Just as I have the right to publish whatever I want, so to do people have the right to stay whatever they want about what I publish.

-Hounding people about reviews is like being that one guy in college we mentioned above, the guy who nags everyone to read his novel.

-It can scare off people from leaving honest reviews if they know the author is lurking in the comments section, ready to fall upon them like a ton of bricks.

-It really is a waste of time and never ends well. Remember the section above about accidentally provoking an Internet lynch mob? Arguing with reviewers is an excellent way to do that.

The one exception is if someone emails me to tell me what they thought, or leaves a Facebook comment, and I always respond (politely) to those messages.

I know negative reviews are a big deal for new writers. I once had a woman tell me that she could never write a book because she could not bear the thought of anyone criticizing it. The surest way to get a new writer to melt down is to criticize their book, and every few weeks I will see a news story or a blog post about a new-ish writer who loses his or her mind at a critical review. The first one-star review does feel like a blade to the heart. But the twentieth? The hundredth? Not so much. Writers, like dragons, grow thicker scales as they get older. I am currently writing my 31st (possibly 32nd, I’ve lost count) novel, and I care much less about criticism than I did when I started.

I think part of that is simply growing older – aging has its downsides, but one of the benefits is that the circle of people whose opinion matters shrinks drastically. A teenage boy cares what everyone thinks of him, but a grown man concerns himself with the opinions of far fewer people. Concerning book reviews, perhaps in the end all writers should aspire to emulate a ninety-five year old woman sitting upon her porch with a beer and a cigarette and utter disregard for what anyone might think of her.

If that doesn’t work, a surefire way to get over the bad review blues is to look up the Amazon page for a classic work of literature like THE LORD OF THE RINGS, read the one-star reviews, and wonder what people were thinking.

CONCLUSION

Book marketing need not be onerous, and I hope the methods detailed above will help.

But do writers need to do marketing for their books?

Consider Coca-Cola. Everyone knows that Coke exists. It can be purchased at practically every location in the United States that serves food and drink. Yet I just saw a commercial for Coke.

Coca-Cola is possibly one of the best known products and brands on the planet…and Coke still needs to do marketing! My books are not as well-known as Coca-Cola, and if you are a writer I am reasonably sure that yours are not, either. (If they are, congratulations!) So I need to do marketing.

But I think it is possible to do it in a way that isn’t unpleasant or vexing.

-JM

Is Amazon Bad For Writers, Readers, And American Literature?

Lately there has been a lot of talk in the press and on the Internet about whether or not Amazon is bad for readers and writers. Famed writer James Patterson, in particular, recently gave a speech where he argued that Amazon threatened to destroy American literature and the government needed to get involved. YA author John Green said Amazon is a bully threatening to destroy the “quality of literature” created by the “importance of that partnership” publishers have with writers.

Of course, there is a simple way to prove or disprove Mr. Patterson’s and Mr. Green’s argument – mathematics. Let us postulate a hypothetical reader who has $30 to spend a month on books. He cannot exceed this amount for any reason due to limited income, which is a situation most of us have experienced, are experiencing, or will experience.

So. What can our reader get for his $30?

The list price for a new hardback book is $27.99. Depending on discounting, our reader could get it for anywhere from $18 to full price. The list price for a mass market paperback is $9.99 and with discounting is usually around $7 to $8, depending upon the retailer. So for his $30, our reader can get one hardback book and one paperback, or three paperbacks.

My DEMONSOULED series has seven books, each one over 100,000 words long. In hardback terms that would put them around 400 to 450 pages each. The first one is free, 2-4 are currently $2.99, and 5-7 are $3.99. Which means for $20.94, our reader can get the entire series (or for $19.95, if he get the first three books in DEMONSOULED OMNIBUS ONE instead of the first three books individually). Which means that after buying the entire DEMONSOULED series in ebook form, our reader would still have money left over for a nice coffee. Two coffees, if he got them at a gas station.

Ah, but does the writer of that $28 hardback book get more money for his labors? Not really. The average royalty for a hardback book is about $2. For a $2.99 ebook, the author gets about $1.94 to $2.09, depending on the size of the file. With a $3.99 ebook, the author gets about $2.75. So a self-published writer can make more money for a $3.99 ebook than a traditionally published writer will make off a hardback book. For that matter, a self-published author will make more off a $3.99 ebook than a traditionally published writer would make off a $7.99 mass market paperback, as the royalty rate for paperbacks is lower than that of hardbacks.

“But,” someone might object. “Those hardcover books and trade paperbacks are real books! You just write self-published crap! When you pay for a traditionally published $28 hardback, you are paying for quality!”

The quality of literature is in the eye of the beholder. One man’s classic is another man’s dreck. I should point out that the second and the third books in the DEMONSOULED series have each sold over 10,000 copies, and that the final book in the series has sold over 3,000 copies, which means that over 3,000 people like the series enough to buy each available book. There are traditionally published writers who would be delighted to sell 3,000 copies. And perhaps the DEMONSOULED books are objectively bad (if such an objective standard were even to exist) they have nonetheless objectively entertained thousands of people. (And there are many, many self-published writers who have sold vastly more books than I have.) The readers paid the money for the books. Should not they be the ones to decide if it is good or not?

So the reader pays less money for more books. The author gets paid more money. Everyone wins!

Except, of course, for the major publishers, the alleged “partners” of writers and readers. And by its own bad decisions, traditional publishing has left itself vulnerable to the disruption of ebooks.

It is unlikely that the major publishers have actually been engaged in a conspiracy to destroy fiction reading as a form of recreation among Americans, but they certainly have acted as if they were. Consider how books have gotten more and more expensive, how publishers bend over backwards to charge libraries as much as possible. Academic publishers are particularly egregious in this regard, especially considering that they often pay the contributors to their journals nothing at all. Consider how many small bookstores went out of business because the publishers focused upon the major book chains instead of smaller stores (amusingly, the decline of the large book chains has led to an increase in independent bookstores). Consider how publishers have inflicted more and more restrictive and draconian contracts upon writers (and it is worth reading the comments section of the linked post for more tales of publisher maleficence), often crippling the writers’ ability to sell work elsewhere. American literature was in decline long, long before Amazon and ebooks came along, largely thanks to the large publishers.

Publishing likes to present itself as a “gatekeeper” of quality, a guardian of culture, but the gatekeepers have demonstrated appalling arrogance. They have usurped the authority that rightfully belongs to the reader. It is the reader who should decide what books are worth his or her time, not a publisher selecting books based on whether or not he approves of the political message or whether or not he thinks it is likely to sell. And thanks to Amazon and ebooks, publishing has been transformed from an oligarchy to a democracy. (It telling that the writers who attack Amazon the most tend to be the ones that were in the top 1% of the old publishing oligarchy.) It is now the individual writers that decide whether or not to take the risk of publishing their books, and the individual readers to decide whether or not the books are worth their time and money.

The math is clear. Amazon (and the ebook revolution it spurred) is cheaper for readers and pays more to writers. Rather than destroying American literature, it will launch a renaissance in literacy by bringing cheaper books to many, many more people, and reading for recreation will slowly transform from an elite activity to a popular one.

-JM

UPDATE: Miral Sattar has a good article on the topic on PBS’s website.

UPDATE II: Thriller author Barry Eisler expands on the 1% metaphor in The Guardian.

Windows 8.1 Has Become Surprisingly Good

Here is a sentence I never thought I would type – I am writing my current book on a Windows 8.1 tablet.

Specifically, an ASUS Transformer T100 tablet. It comes with a keyboard dock, so you can connect the tablet to the dock and use it as a netbook. However, it has two major advantages over a normal tablet or a netbook.

-It runs the full version of Windows 8.1, not Windows RT, so it can run standard Windows desktop applications. So you get the full version of Office, and I can run programs like Sigil and Calibre and Jutoh that I use for making ebooks.

-It’s a tablet, so all the guts of the computer are behind the screen. So when you use it as a laptop, the screen gets warm, but the keyboard section stays cool.

That part is huge. I’ve been looking for a laptop that says comfortably cool in the lap for fifteen years, and I’ve never found one. I thought about an iPad with a Bluetooth keyboard, but that becomes unwieldy, or a Chromebook, but a Chromebook still gets warm and Google Docs has a hard time with documents over 10,000 words or so. Additionally, neither an iPad nor a Chromebook has all the apps I need – the iPad and the Chromebook don’t have a good way to, say, create EPUB files, or convert a Nook file into a Kindle file. But the Transformer tablet is a full Windows PC, so you can install any compatible application on it, and it stays pleasantly cool during use.

The biggest weakness is the small screen, and I wouldn’t want to edit or do book layout on it. But for typing new material, it is excellent – I simply dial up the Zoom in Word to 180% and I’m good to go.

It is remarkable that something the size of an iPad has the capabilities of a full Windows PC – and is $150 cheaper than an iPad, to boot.

-JM

Sign up for my newsletter and get a free story

As the release of GHOST IN THE MAZE draws near, this seems like a good time to mention that if you sign up for my new-release newsletter, you’ll get a free short story (via Smashwords coupon code) with the book. Just enter your email address in the form here, and then click on the link in the resultant confirmation email, and you’ll be subscribed. (You can unsubscribe at any time.)

-JM

Windows 8.1 vs Ubuntu 14.04 Trusty Tahr

Time for a brief digression into tech geekery. As many of you know, in addition to fantasy novels I also write short tech books. I have three books on Ubuntu Linux, and one book on Windows 8.1. In April, my three Ubuntu books combined sold 331 copies, which was pretty cool. However, my Windows 8.1 book sold 454 copies, which was even cooler. (Thanks everyone!)

So more people purchased an introductory guide to Windows 8.1 than an introductory guide to Ubuntu. There is only one conclusion we can draw from this data.

Windows 8.1 is now more confusing to use than Linux. :)

-JM

AWAKE IN THE NIGHT LAND, by John C. Wright

AWAKE IN THE NIGHT LAND, written by John C. Wright and published by Castalia House (the publisher founded by Hugo-nominated SF/F writer Vox Day), is set in the world of THE NIGHT LAND, a science fiction novel written William Hope Hodgson, who unfortunately died in battle a few months before the end of World War I. Hope’s THE NIGHT LAND takes place upon a far-future Earth a billion billion years in the future, so far in the future that the sun and the other stars have burned out and the Earth is overrun by mutated abhumans and eldritch horrors of the outer darkness. Mankind only survives in the Last Redoubt, a seven-mile tall pyramid fortress sustained by technologies refined over a billion years of struggle, while the rest of the earth, overrun by darkness, is called the “Night Land”. The remnant of mankind fights against the horrors of the final darkness, even knowing that one day their power supplies will fail and their enemies will destroy them, that entropy and evil shall inevitably triumph.

AWAKE IN THE NIGHT LAND is a series of four linked novellas taking place over the last five million years of the Last Redoubt’s history, as the Earth and mankind draw ever closer to their final destruction. The first novella deals with a man venturing into the horrors of the Night Land to save his friend, the second with a brother and sister concocting an audacious and dangerous plan to tame some of the mutated beasts of the Night Land, the third is the tale a man venturing into the Night Land to rescue the spirit of his father, and the fourth centers around a 20th-century big-game hunter awakening from cryosleep on a spaceship that is hurtling towards the final instant of the universe as all of space and time and matter collapse into nothingness.

AWAKE IN THE NIGHT LAND is a dark book, but not in the adolescent, cartoonish sense one sees in much GAME OF THRONES inspired fantasy or BREAKING BAD-esque contemporary dramas. Instead it is the darkness of utter despair, of wondering if the universe is in fact a prison of ultimate entropy and decay from which there can never be any escape. Or if the universe is in fact ruled by powers of darkness that reincarnate men over and over to torment them again and again, delighting in their pain over uncounted thousands of incarnations. In the world of the book, the sinister powers of the Night Land, led by the terrifying and enigmatic Silent Ones, rule the Earth, and indeed the entirety of the universe. Only the Last Redoubt stands free, and its inhabitants know it will inevitably fall and be consumed by the eternal darkness.

And yet…

If that was all there was to the book, I would not have finished it and would not be writing about it now.

There is a literary technique called “eucatastrophe”. Just as a catastrophe is a complete and utter disaster, a reversal of fortune for the worse, a eucatastrophe is a sudden and utter triumph, usually worked by an outside force over which the protagonists have no control. J.R.R. Tolkien coined the term, and used as his example the Resurrection, when Christ triumphed over death and hell and saved mankind. In his fiction, the most obvious examples are  in THE LORD OF THE RINGS with the unexpected victory of the Host of the West at the Black Gate of Mordor when Gollum falls into the fire with the Ring, or in THE SILMARILLION when the Valar arrive to overthrow Morgoth Bauglir and destroy his realm at the end of the First Age. (Or more simply but more emotionally, the hobbit Pippin frozen with joy when he hears the horns of Rohan during the Siege of Gondor.) Tolkien himself put it like this in his essay ON FAIRY-STORIES:

At least I would say that Tragedy is the true form of Drama, its highest function; but the opposite is true of Fairy-story. Since we do not appear to possess a word that expresses this opposite — I will call it Eucatastrophe. The eucatastrophic tale is the true form of fairy-tale, and its highest function.

The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn” (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale): this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially ‘escapist’, nor ‘fugitive’. In its fairy-tale—or otherworld—setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.

It is the mark of a good fairy-story, of the higher or more complete kind, that however wild its events, however fantastic or terrible the adventures, it can give to child or man that hears it, when the “turn” comes, a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears, as keen as that given by any form of literary art, and having a peculiar quality.”

However, writing a eucatastrophe is really, really hard to do well. Like, almost impossible, since the iron logic of stories demands that the protagonist succeed at least partly through his own efforts. Otherwise it seems cheap, like the author waving his magic wand at the end of the story to make things right. So a eucatastrophe done badly comes across as a deus ex machina, like Scotty saving the Enterprise in the last five minutes of the episode by reversing the polarity of the warp core or whatever. But done well, it is nothing short of amazing. Think of how much tension and darkness there is in THE LORD OF THE RINGS before the Ring falls into the fires of Orodruin.

Ah, how to discuss this without spoilers? Suffice it to say, despite the dark nature of AWAKE IN THE NIGHT LAND (especially the story of Antigone, Polynices, Draego, and Dracaina), you will not be disappointed if you read to the end of each novella, and especially if you read to the end of the entire book.

To summarize, AWAKE IN THE NIGHT LAND is an amazing and powerful book, science fiction, fantasy, and horror all blended together in one superb story.  Recommended without reservation or caveat.

As a final point, the mere existence of AWAKE IN THE NIGHT LAND proves some points I have made earlier, that the mainstreaming of ebooks has been an unmitigated good for both writers and readers. I believe Mr. Wright wrote most of the book long before ebooks ever went mainstream, but ebooks have helped AWAKE IN THE NIGHT LAND achieve a vastly wider audience than it would have otherwise. Traditional publishing has, with some exceptions, become moribund, ossified, and conformist (SF/F publishing is particularly bad in this regard), and I suspect the reaction of most acquiring editors at a major publisher to AWAKE IN THE NIGHT LAND would involve the word “apoplexy”. Ebooks have cracked open the old stranglehold of traditional publishing, and made it possible for worthy books like AWAKE IN THE NIGHT LAND to achieve a far wider audience than they could otherwise.

-JM

The Five Iron Laws Of Storytelling

Someone recently asked me about my “rules” for writing. This struck me as an odd thing to ask (why would someone want my advice?), but then I realized that when FROSTBORN: THE MASTER THIEF comes out in the first week of May, I will have self-published 30 novels. 7 DEMONSOULED books, 10 THE GHOSTS books, 5 FROSTBORN books, 4 TOWER OF ENDLESS WORLDS books, 3 THE THIRD SOUL books (I count THE THIRD SOUL OMNIBUS ONE as a single book), and 1 stand-alone mystery/thriller novel. So perhaps it’s not so strange that people sometimes ask for advice.

That said, there aren’t really any rules. Basically, write whatever you can get away with, and whatever works.

However, when people talk about “writing” they usually mean storytelling, which is the entire point of writing a novel.  And storytelling definitely has some strong laws – iron laws, even – that a writer ignores to his peril. When people get ticked off about the ending of a story (like the SOPRANOS, or Stephen King’s DARK TOWER series), or if they simply don’t like a novel or a TV show, it is usually because the writer ignored one or more of these iron laws.

These, then, are what I believe to be the Five Iron Laws Of Storytelling. When discussing them, I will cite five examples that I think to be excellent examples of the craft of storytelling: the movie THE KING’S SPEECH, the movie WRECK-IT RALPH, the movie GRAVITY, the novel PRIDE & PREJUDICE, and the TV series BREAKING BAD. (I should note I did not like BREAKING BAD because it was a textbook example of the trendy and shallow nihilism that infests contemporary American culture, but it was nonetheless an excellently crafted story.) I will also site four things I believe to be examples of bad storytelling – the final two volumes of Stephen King’s THE DARK TOWER series, the DRAGON AGE 2 computer game,  the ending of the MASS EFFECT 3 computer game,  and the ending of the SOPRANOS television series. So note that there will be !!!SPOILERS!!! for all eight of these shows, films, games, and books.

Now, on to the Five Laws:

1.) THE PROTAGONIST MUST HAVE A PROBLEM THAT RESULTS IN A CONFLICT.

Because if there is no problem, there is no story. Conflict and problems are the engines that drive story. A happy life with minimal conflicts and problems might be the ideal for real life, but it makes for an exceedingly dull story. The main character of a story needs to have a problem that results in some kind of conflict. Note that the story doesn’t necessarily have to have an actual villain – it just needs a problem.  THE KING’S SPEECH doesn’t have a villain (though the future Edward VIII is kind of a jerk), but instead revolves around George VI’s efforts to deal with his speech impediment. GRAVITY, likewise, has no villain, but centers around Dr. Stone’s efforts to survive in the harsh environment of space.

So the protagonist must have a problem. The story is about how he deals with the problem.

2.) THE PROTAGONIST’S PROBLEM AND CONFLICT MUST BE CONSEQUENTIAL AND HAVE REAL STAKES.

The problem has to be serious, because if it is not, if there are no real stakes, the reader will get bored and cease to care about the character. The worst of all worlds is an unlikeable character with a trivial problem. Walter White in BREAKING BAD is a thoroughly unlikeable character, but becomes sympathetic to the audience because of the nature of his problem – he is dying of cancer, and so he turns to meth production to ensure his family’s security after his death.

Walter’s problem, of course, has very real stakes – his own mortality and his family’s future. But the stakes need not be life and death, but nonetheless they need to be emotionally serious. In THE KING’S SPEECH, at no point in the movie is George VI in any kind of physical danger. He is wealthy and respected, his wife and children love him, and he does not have the self-destructive impulses of his brother. Nevertheless, his problem is real, and it is emotionally painful, and it poses a risk to both himself and his sense of duty to the monarchy and his country.

Likewise, Elizabeth Bennett in PRIDE & PREJUDICE is in no physical danger throughout the book. Nonetheless, the stakes of her problem – her feelings for Mr. Darcy – are consequential. If she does not secure a good marriage, when her father dies there is the very real possibility she will be impoverished. Or if she marries an unsuitable man like Mr. Wickham, her life will be miserable. So while a young woman dealing with her feelings seems like a trivial problem, it will nonetheless have potentially dire consequences if she chooses wrongly.

Physical danger is of course an easy way to introduce high stakes to a story – in GRAVITY, Dr. Stone faces the constant risk of death in a variety of agonizing ways. Later in WRECK-IT RALPH, Ralph faces the prospect of nonexistence if he dies outside of his game. In BREAKING BAD, other than inevitable death from cancer, Walter White faces increasingly high odds of getting shot in the head by his business partners and customers (clearly crystal meth is not a business for the conservative-minded investor).

Regardless of the nature of the problem and conflict, it must be consequential and carry high risks and dangers for the protagonist.

That said, the problem must be something the protagonist can conceivably deal with and handle. Too vague of a problem, or too powerful of a problem, and the story goes off the rails. DRAGON AGE 2 is a good example of this difficulty. The central conflict in the game was the strife between the mages and the templars, who were supposed to police the mages. The templars claim the mages are demon-worshiping abominations, while the mages claim the templars are arbitrary and brutal. As it turns out, both sides are right, regardless of which faction the protagonist chooses to aid, making the conflict of DRAGON AGE 2 to be…human nature? Social injustice? Regardless, it’s not a problem that can be resolved within the game, (and in the ending the templars and the mages go into open war no matter what decisions the player makes) so the story falls flat.

3.) THE PROTAGONIST MUST TAKE ACTION AND STRUGGLE TO RESOLVE HIS CONFLICT AND PROBLEM.

A common failure in storytelling is a protagonist who has a serious problem…but does nothing about it.  We’ve all read stories with a passive protagonist, or even worse, a protagonists who does nothing but whine about his difficulties, or thinks that by feeling bad about his problems, they will somehow magically get better. Worst of all is when a protagonist does nothing but whine or complain for two hours or 300 pages and somehow does solve all her problems – this is a common problem in romance novels.

The converse of this problem is the Boring Invincible Hero; this is common in science fiction or fantasy series where towards the end of the series the hero is so powerful he can defeat all problems using his magic or a blast from his particle cannon. Struggle is necessary for a story – if the protagonist does not struggle, the story is boring.

No, the protagonist has to take action, actual, active action to resolve his problem, but he must struggle while doing so. In BREAKING BAD, Walter White sets out to solve his family’s impending financial ruin by brewing up some crystal meth for sale. In WRECK-IT RALPH, Ralph wants respect from the other denizens of his game, so he jumps to another game to win a medal and therefore prestige. In GRAVITY, Dr. Stone struggles to stay alive the entire time in face of the indifferent hostility of outer space to human life.

If these characters did nothing to surmount their problems, we would have boring stories.

4.) THE PROTAGONIST MUST FACE CHALLENGES AND SETBACKS, AND HIS EFFORTS TO RESOLVE HIS PROBLEM MAY EVEN BACKFIRE.

This is a good antidote to the Boring Invincible Hero problem described above. Think of this as the Unexpected Complications Ensue rule. You see this all the time in real life, in matters both serious and trivial. Like, you need to mail your rent check, but you’re out of stamps. So you drive to the post office, but there’s an accident at an intersection and you have to take a different route. As you take a different route, your car breaks down. All these new problems need to be dealt with, and you still have to mail the check! We’ve all had days like that, and fictional protagonists should be no different in the pursuit of their goals.

Additionally, it’s also possible for a protagonist to actively make things worse through his actions. Like in WRECK-IT RALPH, Ralph sets off to get his Medal of Heroism, but in doing so accidentally puts his own game out of order, and inadvertently unleashes the virus-like Cy-Bugs on the Sugar Rush game. Walter White in BREAKING BAD is a textbook example of this – in the course of attempting to solve his problems, he make a number of extremely bad decisions that estrange him from his family and send his business partners gunning for his head. In THE KING’S SPEECH, George VI gives up in despair, believing he will never overcome his speech impediment. In PRIDE & PREJUDICE, Elizabeth torpedoes her relationship with Mr. Darcy because of her misunderstanding of his motives.

And if you’ve seen GRAVITY, you know Dr. Stone’s situation frequently goes from bad to worse!

5.) THE ENDING MUST PROVIDE SATISFACTORY EMOTIONAL RESOLUTION TO THE PROBLEMS RAISED IN THE STORY!

Of all five laws, this one is undeniably the most important. Screw this one up, and readers will be ticked, and talk about it on the Internet for years. Whatever crisis comes up in the story, whatever conflict or difficulties, it must be resolved in an emotionally satisfying manner by the end of the story. It can be a happy ending, or a sad ending, or a mixture of the two, but it must be emotionally satisfying. 

Let’s look at some bad examples first.

Stephen King’s THE DARK TOWER series is a a good example of this – after 22 years and seven books, the protagonist Roland learns that he has repeated his quest to the Dark Tower over and over again for thousands of years, forgetting every time. Which makes everything that happened in the previous seven books meaningless, since the events had happened before and will happen again. Therefore there is no emotional resolution to the story or of Roland’s quest for the Tower.

MASS EFFECT 3 is another example of how not to end a story.  In the case of MASS EFFECT 3, the ending is simply too abbreviated – Commander Shephard sacrifices himself/herself, a weird light shoots out of the Citadel, the Normandy crash-lands on an alien planet – and that’s all. Considering the hundreds of hours of gameplay involved, and the intricate network of emotional relationships between Shephard’s companions, and the dozens of subplots over the three games, the ending was too short to provide adequate emotional resolution. It felt like a cop-out, as if the writers had simply said “OK, we’re done now, stop here” and had given up before attempting the necessary denouement. (The ending of DRAGON AGE ORIGINS, by contrast, was an excellent example of a well-done ending.)

The ending of THE SOPRANOS is an even more extreme version of this. Infamously, the series simply ends with a cut to black in the middle of Tony Soprano and his family eating dinner, and many viewers thought their televisions had failed. This is the ultimate example of a story failing to provide emotional resolution – the final episode does not even attempt to do so.

I suspect these problems arise when a writer tries to be “realistic”, which is what happens when a writer mistakes verisimilitude (a story feeling realistic) for “realistic”.  A story requires suspension of disbelief, and attempting phony “realism” causes the story to break down.

But, on to some good examples of endings.

The ending of BREAKING BAD was well-executed, since it resolved the story’s emotional conflicts. Walter White does not escape punishment for his many crimes, since he is shot to death at the end. Additionally, he dies in the act of resolving some of the conflicts he helped create – his meth empire has been taken over by neo-Nazis, and his former partner has been forced to prepare meth for them. Walter tries to provide for his family, free his partner, and defeat his rivals, and dies at the end, killed not by his cancer but by finally facing the consequences of his many bad decisions.  Note that this is by no means a happy ending, but it is a satisfying ending, which is more important.

THE KING’S SPEECH ends well, with George VI addressing the nation over the radio without melting down due to his speech impairment, simultaneously resolving the conflicts over his stammer and his fear of accepting his duties as king. This is an ambivalently happy ending – George VI has overcome his conflicts, but the viewers know that the United Kingdom is about to go through World War II, and George himself will die of lung cancer and heart disease in 1952. Nevertheless, the conflicts within the story have been resolved.

WRECK-IT RALPH has a more straightforwardly happy ending. Every single conflict raised within the story is resolved – Ralph accepts his role as villain in the game, realizing that he is a vital part of the team, he gains the respect of his neighbors, and the villainous King Candy and the Cy-Bugs are defeated. Additionally, even the side conflicts are resolved – Fix-It Felix marries Sergeant Calhoun, King Candy’s malevolent influence over the racing game has ended, and the homeless video game characters are able to set up inside Ralph’s game.

To sum up, stories have a sort of irresistible logic to them, much like a properly balanced equation. A writer should set out to create a story that follows this logic, which will result in a far more enjoyable experience for the reader.

-JM

ebook sales for 2013, part two

Apropos of my last post about ebook sales in 2013, there is one fact I would like to mention since it illustrates the point of my last post so perfectly – in January of 2014, my book THE DESTROYER OF WORLDS (the 4th and final book of my THE TOWER OF ENDLESS WORLDS series) sold its 1,000th copy since I published it in June of 2012.

I would like to thank everyone who bought and enjoyed the book. Additionally, I think that is really remarkable, for reasons I shall explain below.

I wrote THE TOWER OF ENDLESS WORLDS series in its entirety in 2003, and found a publisher for the first book in 2004. Due to a variety of circumstances, the book did not come out until 2008, and did not sell very well. I received just enough in royalties to buy a Big Mac. Needless to say, the publisher was not interested in the subsequent volumes.

So when the Kindle came along, I got the rights to the first book back, and published the entire series in June of 2012. Compared to some of my other books, it has not sold that well – GHOST IN THE SURGE did 1,000 copies in a single month – but I’ve given away thousands of copies of the first book for free, and each of the subsequent books has sold over 1,000 copies.

Think about that. That means over one thousand people read THE TOWER OF ENDLESS WORLDS for free, and liked it enough to spend $9 to buy the remaining three books in the series and read the adventures of Ally Wester and Arran Belphon and Thomas Wycliffe all the way through to the end. Obviously I’ve made a pleasant bit of money from this, but that’s not the main point – a thousand people have read the series, something which would have been literally impossible under traditional publishing. In fact, I know it is literally impossible, because I tried it in 2008, and saw the results.

So, if you are a new writer, you are infinitely better off self-publishing than attempting the madman’s lottery that is traditional publishing. Unless there is a publisher backing a dump truck full of $100 bills up your driveway (which, as one might expect, happens very rarely) you are better off self-publishing.

Which would you rather have? An agent’s “send me the rest of the manuscript” letter, or a complete stranger who paid $9 to read all three books in the series to the end?

-JM

*A more eloquent post on this topic is here.

ebook sales for 2013, part one

There’s been a lot of doom-and-gloom jeremiads from prominent agents and traditionally published writers about self-publishing ebooks recently, mostly centered around how a “tsunami of crap” (or, more crudely, as a “shit volcano”*) shall destroy readers’ appetites for ebooks. This is, to put it bluntly, utter nonsense, and based upon a flawed understanding of how the Internet works. (My opinion on why is here.) YouTube and eBay both, for instance, are awash in “crap”, yet people seem to be launching careers off both sites on a regular basis. The assumption is that without the help of “gatekeepers” to curate appropriate books for the public, readers shall lose themselves in a sea of poorly written books, grow disgusted, and abandon reading for watching “Dancing With The Stars” or whatever.**

The irrationality of this assumption is quite visible in hindsight. It turns out that if you offer people near-infinite choice, they will still select the things they like! Subway offers a gazillion different possible sandwich combinations, and I pretty much order the same thing every time I eat there.

However, the reader need not take my word for it. Hugh Howey (author of WOOL and SAND) released a massive report this week that confirmed what many people have suspected – self-published ebooks have basically taken over the market, and traditional publishing has become increasingly vestigial. (UPDATE: There’s another good analysis of the topic here.)

So, in the spirit of sharing information to help other writers make informed decisions, here are my ebook sales from 2013.

I sold 75,896 copies of my books, and gave away 125,091 free copies. Thank you, all! I am very grateful, and that is an amazing number.

Individual details are below. Note that I skipped some of the weaker-selling short stories below, though I did include them in the final total:

THE DEMONSOULED SERIES

Demonsouled (free book): 30, 983

Soul of Tyrants: 3,298

Soul of Serpents: 2,875

Soul of Dragons: 2,696

Soul of Sorcery: 2,726

Soul of Skulls: 3,447

Soul of Swords: 2,381

Demonsouled Omnibus One: 73

DEMONSOULED SHORT STORIES

The Wandering Knight: 513

The Tournament Knight: 336

The Dragon’s Shadow: 433

THE GHOSTS SERIES

Child of the Ghosts (free book): 81,258

Ghost in the Flames:  5,312

Ghost in the Blood: 4,381

Ghost in the Storm: 3,932

Ghost in the Stone:  3,916

Ghost in the Forge: 4,207

Ghost in the Ashes: 2,811

Ghost in the Mask: 2,100

Ghost in the Surge: 7

The Ghosts Omnibus One: 66

THE GHOSTS SHORT STORIES

Ghost Dagger:  1,330

Ghost Aria: 885

Ghost Claws: 336

Ghost Omens: 424

Ghost Thorns: 129

The Fall of Kyrace: 217

THE FROSTBORN SERIES:

Frostborn: The First Quest:  629

Frostborn: The Gray Knight: 1,765

Frostborn: The Eightfold Knife: 629

THE THIRD SOUL SERIES

The Testing (free book):  4,605

The Assassins: 1,103

The Blood Shaman: 940

The High Demon: 806

The Burning Child: 884

The Outlaw Adept: 656

The Black Paladin: 609

The Tomb of Baligant: 554

The Third Soul Omnibus One: 361

The Third Soul Omnibus Two: 321

THE TOWER OF ENDLESS WORLDS SERIES

The Tower of Endless Worlds (free book): 6,700

A Knight of the Sacred Blade: 688

A Wizard of the White Council: 626

The Destroyer of Worlds: 649

NONFICTION

The Ubuntu Beginner’s Guide:  2,855

The Windows Command Line Beginner’s Guide: 5,397

The Linux Command Line Beginner’s Guide: 4,431

The Ubuntu Desktop Beginner’s Guide: 547

The Linux Mint Beginner’s Guide: 746

The Windows 8 Beginner’s Guide: 205

-JM

*I have always found it wise to ignore statements from a writer who is incapable of constructing an argument without profanity.

**Which, to be fair, is a surprisingly entertaining show.

beware the one who names himself a rancher of men

A fairly prominent literary agent, perhaps accidentally, revealed his opinion of writers in a recent post. I will not link to it, but if you are sufficiently curious Google the phrase below, since it captures the crux of his post:

Better still, because some authors are now—voluntarily!—willing to bear the expense and undertake the effort of building an audience by themselves, print publishers have the luxury of culling the prize cattle from the herd. 

If you want to be a writer and are just starting out, you are really infinitely better off self-publishing ebooks than attempting to query agents or publishers. Yes, you’ll make mistakes, or screw something up with the formatting or the cover, get a bad review or two, and (most likely) not sell many copies. But so what? You’ll learn from these mistakes and become better and stronger (and you will learn infinitely more from a paying reader’s bad review than a rejection letter from an agent that says the book “just didn’t work for me”). Perhaps you’ll decide writing is not for you, and that is fine, or you will double down and become a better writer. But either way is more productive than querying agents, which is a waste of time.

Now, you might argue I have an unfair advantage – I submitted my first story to a magazine in 2000 and DEMONSOULED was originally published in 2005, so by the time I discovered the Kindle and ebooks in 2011, I had something like ten unpublished novels ready to go. But if in some parallel universe the Kindle and the Nook and the iPad had been available in 2000,  and if I had a time machine and the option to do it over again, I would definitely self-publish. Certainly I have put that advice into practice – everything I have written since 2011 has been geared toward self-publication, and I do not regret it in the slightest.

Besides, publishing is a business relationship, and you don’t want to get into a business relationship (or any kind of relationship, really) with someone who thinks you are the prize cattle from the herd. Because we all know what happens to prize cattle:

800px-Steak_03_bg_040306

Image credit PDPhoto | WikiMedia Commons

-JM