Jeff Carlson is the international bestselling author of Plague Year, Interrupt, and The Frozen Sky. To date, his work has been translated into sixteen languages worldwide. His new novel is Frozen Sky 2: Betrayed, available on Amazon, Nook, Kobo and Smashwords. Readers can find free excerpts, videos, contests, and more on his website at www.jverse.com
by Jeff Carlson
I’d like to say I’m reporting live from the epicenter of the e-revolution, but I usually feel more like I’m furiously treading water across the shuddering face of a tsunami as it bashes into a major city on the coastline. By that I mean the water is murky, treacherous, moving fast, and frequently altering direction as well as absorbing blows.
Don’t get me wrong. I like bodysurfing tidal waves through buildings and streets crowded with obstacles the size of a bus. Mayhem is my middle name, and the water is also full of interesting people and treasure.
If you missed it, here’s how the tectonic shift began for me:
- In 2010, I self-re-e-published my short story “The Frozen Sky.” That’s right. “Self-re-e-published” is a word, ha ha. The story first appeared in the Writers of the Future 23 anthology, rights reverted, and I put it on Kindle, Nook and iTunes for 99c. It sold 40,000 copies.
- In 2011, I self-published my short fiction collection Long Eyes rather than shopping it to mid or small presses since the Big 5 aren’t interested in short story collections if your name isn’t a brand name, which Jeff Mayhem Carlson is not. That’s because collections never perform as well as novels. Priced at $2.99, Long Eyes has sold 4,600 copies in ebooks plus a few boxfuls in print. 4,700 is not an impressive number but it’s more than a mid-sized press would have produced for their entire print run with an expected sell-through of 60%. Most likely I’d have moved 2,000 copies in a lovely hardcover with a $2,500 advance (minus agent’s commission) and the rights locked up for years. The alternative was I’ve reached twice as many readers, earning $2.09/unit, no commission. So. Ask me if I’m glad I went solo with Long Eyes. Do circus bears ride funny tricycles?
- Oh, and Audible picked up audio rights to Long Eyes even though it was self-pubbed. Next my agents placed three of the stories with the Kindle Singles program while I continued to sell the full collection on my own, which would’ve been impossible if a traditional publisher controlled the rights, and, ahem, KS pays handsomely indeed. The rules are changing. Do I write short fiction as eloquently as Ted Chiang? Heck, no. Do I write it competently and with some cool new twists? Heck, yeah. The lesson is: The big players are interested in good work no matter how it comes to life.
- Late in 2012, I self-pubbed an all-new novel of The Frozen Sky. Holy cow, was this book fun to write! It’s high tech all the way. The people in New York will tell you hard sf can’t sell more than a few thousand copies; they say readers aren’t smart enough or interested in sciency stuff; and I’ve sold 32,000 copies on a budget so small, it wouldn’t cover Starbucks for the marketing department at one of the Big 5. Then my agents turned around and sold Japanese rights for The Frozen Sky to Tokyo Sogensha in what they like to call a “nice” deal, i.e., the windfall won’t buy me a new car but it will cover my mortgage for a few months.
All of the above was waaaaaaaaaay more work than you’d guess from those peppy little bullet points. I don’t mean I swore off sleep in order to blog, tweet, comment, FB and spamalot. In my family, we believe in living your life, so we’re outside as much as possible. We hike. We ski. Call me crazy, but I’d rather talk with a few people face to face in an honest-to-god conversation than like six thousand people on an iPhone. I know, I know, I sound like a caveman. But I sit in front of a computer all day. I’m not interested in more e-stuff during my non-writing hours.
I do read industry blogs while I’m brushing my teeth (a foamy image for which I apologize), skimming through opinions, revelations, e-book data and interviews. These are useful things and not much of a time suck.
If you don’t need sleep, don’t have family or otherwise find yourself with free time and the inclination, I recommend schmoozing the net like it’s Jessica Alba. Just be cool, man. You gotta realize wooing an online community is an art, not a science. It also usually requires a steady commitment of years.
Me, I’m delighted by fan mail. I correspond with regulars, and I blog when I have something to announce. Otherwise I keep my head down into my next book. My hope is readers would rather grab a new novel than see me tweeting what I ate for lunch or what I think about the latest episode of The Walking Dead, which is über cool with minor plot issues, but who couldn’t guess I think it’s über cool with minor plot issues?
The most critical lesson I can impart is USE YOUR TIME WISELY.
For me, the gigantic pain in the neck has been stepping into the role of CEO. I used to be a writer. Now I’m a writer and The Tsunami Surfing Supervisor Of 33 Projects At A Time. I may work in my sweats, unshaven, uncombed, finding my nutrients in bananas and coffee, the breakfast of champions, but the downside of the e-revolution is I’ve become an employer and a boss. Managing my little empire uses 40% of my day. Maybe more.
Being smart with your time also means PATIENCE and PLAN AHEAD.
Many of the people I need are professionals who deal with artwork, layouts, narration, distribution and sales. Others are volunteers like my beta readers and typo killers. The pros are juggling as many projects as I am. Everyone is busy, and weeks can slide into months while we fine-tune details of every kind.
There’s a reason why it takes more than a year for a Big 5 publisher to bring a book from manuscript to finished product. They have more employees than I do. They also have more manuscripts. What I’ve learned is stay organized, set deadlines, and hold onto reliable contacts like they’re made of gold. People who fulfill their promises are rare and precious. I wish I could do everything myself, but I’m not an artist, I’m not a narrator, and I don’t have the patience for converting manuscripts into reflowable ebook files. More important, I want to protect my writing time. I’ve seen entire weeks eaten up by administrative b.s. The best pros don’t need handholding but you still need to set expectations, provide notes and follow up. Every title is a truckload of work. Sooner or later you’ll be itching to publish the darn thing.
Go back through it again first. Quintuple quality check. Self-publishing allows for speedy corrections, but a book is more likely to build momentum if it’s flawless from the start. If you hire people for ebook and print files, it’ll also cost less if you don’t keep coming back with “one more” fix list.
I’ve found that reading a manuscript in different font sizes, reading it out loud or even taking it into different environments will give me fresh eyes when I’m poring through it for the eighteenth time. If you live in my neighborhood and see me waving my arms in the yard as I’m mumbling at a stack of paper or banging on a laptop, you probably think I’m crazy, but I’m not. I’m colorful. That’s what happens when you sit alone in a room for ten years listening to the voices in your head.
Another key aspect is price point.
Recently I’ve seen it noted that Big 5 publishers sell short stories for $2.99 and of course novel-length works for never less than $5.99 with plenty of sales at $7.99 – $12.99. That’s true. For the most part, however, those three-dollar short stories are from mega names like Rollins and King whose fan bases are massive.
Somehow I’ve become an economist as part of my job description. All of the following is anecdotal, not only in regard to my books but to friends’ books as well. Your mileage may vary. The best part about e-publishing is it’s the Wild West. Anything goes. Experiment. But here’s what I see specifically in the science fiction ebook market:
If you price your novel at 99c, even for a special, you’ll move more copies but also rack up more negative reviews. We could debate whether that’s because people don’t value what comes cheaply or because cheap people are cranky and easily disappointed. Another factor may be you’re attracting readers who normally wouldn’t buy your kind of book. They figure 99c is a low-risk transaction, then hate the story anyway.
Yes, there are examples of writers who opened on the ground floor at 99c, sold several thousand copies, found traction through word of mouth, raised their price and continued to ride the wave of popularity to riches and fame.
Other indie writers have built solid audiences for themselves. Now they release their new titles at $3.99 to $4.99 with success. That’s awesome.
My experience is $2.99 is the sweet spot, and I would much rather reach 30,000 people at three bucks a pop than 3,000 people at five. First: that’s ten times as many eyeballs. Second: 70% of $90,000 is more than 70% of $15,000. It’s, like, economies of scale, dude. I’m all for maximizing the return on your investment. Writing a novel is a huge endeavor. Everyone wants to feel wanted. Everyone wants to be rewarded. But I’m not the only writer who noticed a cooling off at $3.99. If you’re a top seller, hey, fantastic, run with it. Meanwhile, earning the equivalent of hardcover royalties at $2.99 is nothing to distain. Don’t price yourself out of casual buys due to some principle that you’re undervaluing yourself. If you’re a working joe like me, find the happy medium. The magic of the e-revolution is $2.99 can result in more than a good wage.
Having said that, watch me contradict myself (twice!) in the next segment of the E-Report. There are new things I’d like to add, and I’m running long.