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[GUEST POST] Jeff Carlson on The E-Report

Sometimes I wish I was an old man so I could have written a pile of books that are out of print.


That’s right.  I wish I’d written books that are out of print so I could relist ‘em on Kindle, Nook, iTunes and Kobo at rock bottom modern e-book prices.  I’d make a fortune.  Instead I gotta do things the old-fangled way and write more books first!

Not long ago, I felt like I was the Last Of The Mohicans — a writer who’d come up the traditional path from placing short stories in print magazines to finding an agent to selling novels to a Big 6 publisher who produced, printed, warehoused and distributed fat stacks of dead trees.  (The publisher also fielded returns and issued Byzantine, biannual royalty statements).

Now I’m dangerously close to becoming a wild-eyed e-revolutionary.

After some success republishing my short stories online, knowing exactly what New York had to offer, I self-published my fourth novel in October.

Going solo was nerve-wracking, and I’m still wary about the future.  My big evil corporate publisher was good to me.  We sold a lot of books, which led to some nice translation deals and a film option.  Having print editions in stores is a childhood dream fulfilled.

On my own, realistically, my print distribution approaches zero.  That sucks.

But I write science fiction.  A large percentage of sf/f readers are tech friendly, tech savvy, educated early adapters who love their gadgets because they want quick access to new media.

Even readers who prefer dead trees have Amazon accounts.  My grandma has an Amazon account.

Also important:  The last nationwide brick-and-mortar chain in the U.S. is in financial trouble and has survived purely on sales of their e-reader, which is tanking due to their late start into the e-book market, the clunkiness of their e-store, their pricing, and the relentless, predatory schemes of their largest rival — and I don’t mean predatory in a bad way.  Predatory is praise.

More on that in a second.

Some regional chains and independent stores are performing well.  Book sales are also brisk in big box stores such as Target and CostCo, and, oh boy, like most writers I chew my heart out each time I linger at a table stacked with books from heavy hitters like King, Steele, Roberts or Grisham.

At the same time, I feel like I’m living in a PKD or Gibson novel.  For the past few years, most of my fan mail has arrived from people who read on various phones or tablets while charging through their busy futuristic lives.  They find books via e-clubs, e-stores and archaic word of mouth, except to say their word of mouth is virtual and spans the world.

The success of my best 99 cent short story (40,000 sold) led to a book deal with 47North, the e-devils themselves.  You don’t know the POWER of the Dark Side!  Bwah ha ha ha.  Epic thriller Interrupt releases July 23rd.

Meanwhile, the big question was if sci fi fans would respond to a full-length novel of The Frozen Sky as they’d enjoyed the 99c story?

I wanted to find out.  I went all in.

Hiring and managing a squad of professionals for cover art, interior art, e-book and print files, narrating the audiobook and designing specific upgrades for my web site cost $1300.00 and several days of my time.  Then those tasks were behind me.  I own 100% of the book forever (and 25% of the audiobook).

Last week The Frozen Sky hit the mark of 10,000 e-books sold.

My agents are gabberflasted.  So are my friends who are industry pros.

I’m not.  As a newly minted e-revolutionary, I look at outliers on all sides of the market from Hugh Howey to Joe Konrath to John Scalzi — the self-published phenom now landing hefty traditional deals abroad and in North America; the traditionally published journeyman who’s blown the doors off the e-barn in self-publishing; and the prolific contemporary master who dabbled in self-publishing before self-publishing was cool and seems very successfully entrenched with the corporate machine.  By comparison, there’s a lot of room to grow.

Put in perspective, however, 10,000 copies are more than the largest NYC publisher of science fiction expects to sell in hardcover during the entire lifetime of an average title. Quite a bit more.

Here’s the super crazy part.

I launched Frozen Sky at $3.99 because $3.99 seems like more than a fair price for a novel.  In recent months, I’ve also read dozens of blogs and articles about a sea change among e-people who’ve finally rejected the cheap-o self-published dreck and want solid, clean, competently-written novels.

One of the supposed indicators of an SCCWN (acronyms are fun!) is its cost.  So I started highish.

Before Christmas, again having read too many blogs about the crush of self-published material and oncoming holiday promos, I dropped Frozen Sky to $2.99.  It took off.  Presumably buoyed by e-people with gift cards and new gadgets, Frozen Sky ran especially strong through January, so I haven’t bounced it back to $3.99. Too many other titles on the sci fi bestseller lists have psychotically low price points.

Remember, I broke into the industry in mass market paperback.  My royalty per $7.99 print unit of Plague Year is 64 cents.  With e-books, everything is upside down; few production and zero shipping costs; less income to the platform; more income to the author.  Even at $2.99, Frozen Sky earns like a hardcover.  I can’t argue with that.

10,000 e-books plus a couple hundred print books plus several hundred audiobooks equals $24,350.00 minus $1300.00 in one-time expenses.

My family isn’t going to buy Tahiti soon.  Heck, with luck we’ll squeak our kids through college.  Nevertheless, in four months Frozen Sky earned more than the advances of my first two novels combined, and those advances were paid in installments over eighteen months minus 15% commission.

The caveat is Plague Year earned out its advance three weeks after publication.  It’s rambled through eight print runs and has also seen success overseas, not least of which was emerging as a hardcover bestseller in Spain before the global economy imploded.

Frozen Sky may or may not outperform Plague Year in the long run.  Certainly it’s trending well out of the gate.

E-books are a gorgeous setup.

If I want to add a new blurb or tweak one of the maps (minor tasks which would require years to accomplish in New York), I do it overnight.

Readers are happy, too.  They pay a few hundred dollars for a Kindle, an iPhone, et cetera.  Then they can download inexpensive media until their eyeballs hemorrhage.  Writers are well compensated — and none of the e-stores sit on royalties interest free for nine months until finally paying out with obscure, information poor statements that include the eternal, demonic incantation of Reserve Against Returns.  Writers have real time access to detailed sales data.  We’re also paid monthly (30 or 60 days in arrears).  Monthly!

For me, here’s the real beauty:  I spend my time writing.

I love podcast, radio and TV interviews.  Attending book clubs or store events is fantastic.  My job description is I sit alone in a room with my laptop listening to the voices in my head.  The chance to interact with real live people who enjoy the work is gratifying.

(Please let me do more guest blogs, John.)

Analyzing and speculating are among my strengths.  But what I’m not doing as a self-published writer is flogging the Kindle Forums, FB or Twitter with declarations that my book is the greatest product on Earth since canned fried calamari.  Nor do I spamalot my family and friends.  I *do* receive endless spamalots from random people or acquaintances about their books, the worst clocking in at eighteen emails in one month for the same title. Good gracious peanut butter, dude!  I got your first email.  Not for me.  Let it go.

To my relief, Book Town posted a survey of self-published authors with lovely statistics demonstrating that spam doesn’t accomplish much.  The writers who wrote were the writers with the best sales.  The spamalotters were the spammy spammers who spammed, which is good news to me.

I’m a boring person.  I write.  I spend time with my family.  That’s all I have to Twitter about, so for the most part I’ll spare ya.

King Kong Joe Konrath has touted the same mantra for years.  So has my agent, an industry veteran of three decades.  Readers’ word of mouth is the best sales device.  Idle browsing is the other, so it’s important to have a professional-looking product with a genre specific description.  People know what they want.  Build it, and they will come.

What an absolutely gorgeous setup.

I put sweat and blood into writing what I love, sell low, sell a lot, and hear from new fans as nearby as Sacramento or as far off the Netherlands, New Zealand and Japan.  Right now it’s paying my mortgage.

As thanks, this week I’m pricing The Frozen Sky at $1.99.

Welcome to the future.


Artist credit for the map of Europa is “Jeff Sierzenga”

Artist credit for the illustration of astro girl’s eyes is “Jacob Charles Dietz”

13 Comments on [GUEST POST] Jeff Carlson on The E-Report

  1. This was VERY interesting. I have to admit my e-book did NOT fare so well. You do not mention a publicist in the list of professional assistance you used, and you specifically disclaim all that Twitter/FB stuff. Did you use any kind of advertising? Did you get any feed back in your fan mail about fans having read Frozen Sky because they liked Plague Year?

  2. Great and very open and insightful post, Jeff (five years ago on a sunny Denver morning at 10 am, we had the same amount of attendees at our respective WorldCon readings…;-).

    On the one hand, I do agree that an SF author today (and tomorrow) must have a cear plan involving the e-book route, and self-publish if necessary.

    On the other hand, it does help, considerably, if one has a name, plus track record, through traditional publishing (in your case PLAGUE YEAR). OK: there are self-published authors who made it big *without* a previous track record with traditional publishers, but these are — so far — the exception, and most of them are snapped up by the big publishers anyway.

    Interesting times…

  3. typo alert: a *clear* plan.

  4. Jetse! What’s up, man. Yes indeed I remember that morning in Denver, ha ha. I think the number of attendees was 314 exactly, RIGHT? 🙂

    I do believe it helps (in my case, at least) for a writer have established him or herself through short fiction or novels. Coming up the traditional route isn’t necessarily cool — it came with a lot of work and heartbreaking rejection until at last I began to sell stories to small and then bigger markets — but main thing I gained was a lot of experience. Writing short stories is a great way to experiment with voice, structure, arcs, you name it, and plenty of magazine editors provide solid feedback when you’re close to breaking in. They want new writers. So for me, writing short stories was a way to accelerate my craft.

    Michaele, I have not hired a publicist because I’ve only met two publicists I think are any good and I can’t afford them and even they will tell you they can’t guarantee their efforts will pay off. Ergo…? 🙂

    Obviously I’ve done a few guest blogs here and there. I’m also fortunate that Tony Smith with Starshipsofa hosted me for fun, caffeine-addled interview in tandem with Amy H. Sturgis’s excellent rendition of the “Topsider” excerpt from THE FROZEN SKY.

    I’ve had emails from several people who said they heard the interview and/or the “Topsider” excerpt and liked it. Skimming through the reviews of SKY on Amazon, many people definitely liked the PLAGUE YEAR novels and grabbed SKY because of that trilogy. Name recognition was a leg up. I do try to share pithy thoughts etc. on FB and Twitter regularly but tend to feel too busy actually living my life to post about it (and, honestly, who cares what I had for lunch?). Certainly I’m not posting hourly. I’m writing or living my life! No question I’m in something of a minority. Bazillions of people love FB and Twitter, and if it works for them, fantastic. But I don’t think anyone gets too far ahead spamalotting friends and strangers alike?

    As for advertising on Goodreads (very expensive) or Kindle Nation Daily (also expensive) or other sites, I’ve been investigating and asking questions. As yet, however, the $1300 in production costs were purely for artwork, file conversions and upgrades to my web site; I don’t have the patience or the skills for any of ’em. 🙂

    Good questions. Keep it coming!


  5. Congratulations, Jeff. So glad this is working out for you. I’m very pro self-publishing, as you know, and don’t think it’s an either/or with traditional publishing. It’s both!
    -Laurie McLean, Agent (we met at the Central Coast Writers Conference)

  6. Laurie, how could I forget hanging out with the E Ninja Genius Girl herself? 🙂

    Thank you. And you raise a good point that I think I’ve mentioned in other blogs and definitely harped on at CCWC. Publishing isn’t a religion! My sense is the rabid “us versus them” firestorms of indies vs. trads that we saw online a couple years ago has faded, but you still see people virtually screaming at each other as if you can only publish in one way and will eternal damnation should you make the wrong choice. Wrong. Mixing and matching is perfectly valid. Every book (and every writer) is different. That’s the best (and worst) thing about writing. Everybody makes their own way. We can help each other. The job’s too hard and too lonely to view other writers as the enemy. But ultimately, everyone finds their own way.

    See you at BayCon 31?

  7. Insightful post, Jeff. The book is now on my Kindle.

  8. Thank you, gentlemen!

    It’s a toss-up as to whether my favorite one-star review of THE FROZEN SKY on Amazon is from the woman who fears I’m pushing a humanist agenda to turn all of us into “rutting animals” or from the guy who opened with “I found this book to suck”… Aha ha ha ha. But I hope the book strikes chord with you better than it did with them. 😉

  9. Well Done Jeff. The distributors all ate each other, the chain book stores ate each other, and print publishing is in a never ending series of crises.

    Meanwhile — and this is the point I mean to make — for people who can tell stories, the eBook rights are worth more than the print rights. I do have a pot full of old books, none “out of print” but many effectively so since they are generally not displayed for sale in book stores. Fortunately most of them were contracted back before anyone knew there were eBook rights, and I’ve got most of them up on Amazon and Nook now, and yeah, it’s a pretty great thing to see money come in from old books — and to be paid after two months, promptly and not on credible threat of lawsuit. I got royalty checks from Simon and Schuster for royalties earned to Septermber 2012 — in February 2013. Amazon just paid me for sales in December. Not for June through December. December. They’d already paid for the earlier months.

    This eBook thing is great. And Congratulations.

  10. Thank you, Mr. Pournelle.

    “The distributors all ate each other, the chain book stores ate each other, and print publishing is in a never ending series of crises.”

    Sounds like a great book if we can give everyone involved a fork, a crowbar, or a chainsaw! BARNES & NOBLE: BEYOND THUNDERDOME. 🙂

    My best,


  11. Nick Sharps // March 8, 2013 at 2:43 pm //

    Hello Mr Carlson! John hooked me up with a copy of THE FROZEN SKY. I’m honored you request I read it!

  12. Late to my own party. Mr. Sharps, I hope FROZEN SKY strikes a chord. Thanks! And please call me Jeff. You know the drill. “Mr. Carlson” is my father.


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