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
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.