Ten Thousand

On Saturday evening, some time between 10 pm and 11 pm, I sold my 10,000th e-book. That may not seem much in the grand scheme of things but if you consider the fact that my e-books are essentially put together by my wife and myself in our living room and have been on sale for roughly eight months, you can see why I consider this an achievement.

For those of you interested in the actual breakdown of numbers, they were (as of 11:20 pm on the 10th of March):

Death’s Angels: 3607

The Serpent Tower: 1845

The Queen’s Assassin: 1625

Shadowblood: 1418

The Inquiry Agent: 680

Sky Pirates: 84

Assorted Short Stories: 741

As you can see the vast majority of sales (8495) have been in my Terrarch series. Since December I have been averaging well over 2000 sales a month and that trend appears likely to continue this month. (You can compare these numbers to those in my previous post two months ago here.)

To a working writer like me, it is one of the miracles of the age. I seriously doubt whether it is the apocalypse as far as writers are concerned no matter what Jonathan Franzen, Scott Turow and others may say.

Whenever you hear a big-name established writer complaining about e-books and the menace of Amazon, I would advise you to consider the following. It is very likely the person doing the complaining has done very well out of the old system of publishing, and any change to the status quo can only threaten that.

For well over a decade now I have earned what most people would consider a pretty good living from the old system of publishing. It has not been entirely without its tribulations but, honestly, I can’t complain. For the most part, I have had a great career, worked with a lot of people I liked and had fun while I did it. There have been a few hiccups but, on the whole, I have been and continue to be very lucky.

All that said, if I were starting out today I would probably be going the Amazon route. It’s quicker, it gets you a lot of feedback (this can be a very painful thing, be warned), it pays you while you learn, it lets you develop an audience and it gives you a very real experience of what a working writer’s life is actually like.

By this I mean, you get the full-on, non-glamourous experience of being your own boss, contemplating disappointing sales, motivating yourself when the going gets tough and questioning and second-guessing your every decision. Many people think that when you get published you pass through a magic door where the publishing fairies sprinkle you with enchanted pixie dust and the glamourous life of being a real writer begins. Sadly it is not so. You get one huge measure of validation followed by a succession of small and not so small slaps in the face. Intermittently you get thrown the bone of positive reinforcement by an understanding editor, a good review or a nice email.  This is pretty much how it works with epub as well. It just works a lot faster and with a lot more factors under your control.

And with Amazon you’ll miss out on some of the real pains of the old system, such as esoteric annual or bi-annual royalty statements. You’ll get paid monthly, by bank transfer, two months in arrears and you won’t have to invoice anybody. You also don’t get the stress of knowing that if you fail to sell you’ll be back out in the cold, without a contract and without a career unless you change your name and start again from scratch.

But, Bill, I hear you say, Amazon are the devil. Scott Turow and SFWA among others says so. They are out to crush their competitors, destroy diversity and become the evil book-publishing monopoly to end all evil book publishing monopolies.

Nope, Amazon are a corporation. They want to make money. This means they play hardball with other businesses. At some point in time, they may well end up playing hardball with their suppliers, that is to say authors. At this particular moment in time however, they happen to be a corporation whose interests are better aligned with the interests of most writers than almost any other corporation in history.

Consider this. Amazon sells one of my books, I get 70%, they get 30%.

What did it cost me– the labour of writing and producing the book, of finding and creating a cover, of paying an editor, of putting the whole package together. That’s not inconsiderable. In fact, it’s more work than I would put in with a traditional publisher. It’s not difficult though. I have covered the nuts and bolts in two previous posts about creating a cover and making your own e-book. It’s even kind of fun.

What did the production of my book cost Amazon? The cost of storing a file on a system that already exists. For Amazon this is pennies. They have created an infrastructure which lets them get away without many of the costs of conventional publishing. There are no offices full of editors in New York or London, no expense account lunches, no warehouses, no distributors and store-owners taking a cut, nothing.

(I am not discounting Amazon’s cost of doing business. They have spent an enormous amount of money on building what is most likely the world’s best e-commerce infrastructure. But a lot of that money is spent now. The cost of selling my book is shared with the cost of selling millions of others, and everything else Amazon sells as well. Adding my book to this system is a trivial cost to them.)

On an individual book basis, Amazon has no real risk. They don’t pay advances. They don’t have to market any books. The author does all of that. (Just as most authors have to do in traditional publishing!) If the book sells one copy, Amazon still gets 30%. If the book sells hundreds of thousands, and some do, Amazon gets 30% of that. Amazon just pitchforks everything out the door and sees what sinks and what swims. Its algorithms reward the stuff that swims. Amazon does not care whether I made my name writing tie-ins, get great reviews in the Sunday Times or went to the right creative writing program. All it asks is that I sell. To be honest, they don’t even ask that. They won’t pull my books because they don’t sell above a certain threshold. It’s not a case of having 3 months at most to make your mark or your book gets stripped and returned. That’s the way it is with traditional publishing. Amazon are happy enough to store my file on a server indefinitely until someone pays to download it.

This sounds crass and not in the slightest artistic but hey, here’s the deal that currently exists with me and Amazon. I write books. They pay me enough to pay my bills. I get to do something I love. Readers, a fair number of them, get something they want to read. In the case of my books, this is something that traditional publishing did not give them because it thought (most likely absolutely correctly as I have pointed out myself) there was just not enough money in it to make it worthwhile– for them. You see, it’s not just me and Amazon who make cold commercial decisions, everyone involved in publishing does — sometimes extraordinarily cruel ones. Just ask any of those writers who were going to be the next big thing until suddenly they were not and they vanished. Hang around traditional publishing long enough and you will know a few. Hell, you might even become one yourself.

But what does not work for big publishing works just fine for one author and his wife sitting in their living room with a newborn baby. And the logic of what works for my gunpowder military fantasies and cyberpunk fantasy reboots of Edgar Rice Burroughs also applies to lots of other writing that big publishing deems commercially unfeasible. It could work for you.

15 Replies to “Ten Thousand”

  1. Congratulations, and also well done on a really great posting.

    I can’t believe how traditional publishing houses are totally screwing up the transition from the old analogue world of media to the new digital world of media. They all seem to be running around like headless chickens; having a Canute-like attitude to the changeover and other terrible analogies.

    Their decision to set minimum prices for ebooks so that they cost similar prices to (or in some cases, higher prices than) printed books is so wonderfully stupid so that it is the best thing that could ever happen for new and self-published authors.

    If you look at the bestsellers list (especially at amazon.co.uk) the majority of them are under £3, so they are not coming from the major publishers. It has to be a very special book to make me hand over more than £3 and so over the past six months, I have only really been reading book by self-published authors.

    It’s a bit like ‘Book Idol’ – some of the books are terrible, but when I picked them up for free or 99p, it’s no great loss. And many of them turned out to be excellent.

    I’m sure that I’m not the only person who ‘votes with my wallet’ on affordable authors. I just wonder when the major publishing houses will realize that they are going to have to make massive changes in order to survive in the new market, which is going to have to include some serious downsizing as publishing is just not so labour-intensive as it used to be.

    1. Thanks, Nick. I agree with you about pricing. The decision to charge the same for an e-book as a hardback around the time of the hardback release has a certain logic from the point of view of a publisher but looks both silly and greedy from the point of view of a reader. I do think there will be massive changes in publishing but I think all of the big publishers will survive. They have huge backlists and the digital rights grabs of the past decade or so will see that they have an immensely profitable backlist when they finally get their acts together. In a lot of genres you can see that somebody at the big houses has already grasped the point. I can get Robin Hobb’s books, which I love, at £4.99 which is a price I am willing to pay. I can get Len Deighton’s backlist for £3.49. Not as cheap as an some independent books certainly but these are brand names I recognise.

      1. That’s a good point about the backlist profits – I hadn’t thought about that.

        The additional revenues that they should make by having their entire backlists available should make up for losses in other areas.

        Actually my spending on books has gone up since I started downloading sub-£3 ebooks. The only losers are the charity shops where I was buying used paperbacks at similar sort of prices as that was what I was buying before for my general entertainment reading.

  2. Well done, William. And awesome covers, especially the Terrarch Chronicles. So many people underrate the importance of covers, but you clearly have a firm grasp on that aspect. Congratulations!

    1. Thanks, Jason. I wish I could claim more credit for the covers but my wife did them and the paintings for the Terrarch books were commissioned by the good people at Polaris for the Czech editions of the books.

  3. as ever, Bill, your posts and your success as well as your generosity and modesty, are a shot in the arm. Congratulations on passing the 10,000 mark too!

  4. Well that’s two more to the total, I’ve finally made some headway through my Black Library Live reading and picked up Cyberpunk Stories and Sky Pirates. 😀

    Interesting that about 50% of Death’s Angels readers seem to carry on to book two of the series, though I have no way of knowing if that is considered a good conversion rate by publishers standards, it seems like a comfortable one at least. Glad to hear that they are selling well for you.

  5. At the risk of sounding sycophantic, you’ve passed the 10,000 mark because you’re a gentleman of outstanding talent!

    I’ve thought for a long time that you’ve got an ability to write a good yarn. Congratulations to you and thank you for working hard to provide such an informative website that compliments your work.

    Has Amazon ebook publishing made you shy away from future physical book versions, even through print-on-demand services?

  6. Congratulations on reaching this milestone, William!

    Well said on the differences between trad pub and indie pub, and on Amazon’s strategic advantages. Watching the big publishers fumble about is like watching a disruptive innovation case study as the customer’s choices broaden and deepen along with getting more value for their money, while at the same time improving the writers’ slice of the pie by disintermediating the cumbersome middlemen, and reviving the midlist and as you say letting beginning writers learn as they earn, and learn fast.

    Interesting times we live in. 🙂

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