2011: The Self-Publishing Year In Review
I had my own avalanche to deal with. After spending Christmas in Ireland, I flew back to Sweden. A four hour delay meant it was past 3 a.m. when I got home, only to be faced with four feet of snow outside my front door, which had to be dug out. I was happy though, my long agent search had come to an end, with an up-and-coming New York agent keen to sign me. I was watching the developments in self-publishing and e-books with interest, but felt that best results would be achieved after publishing a few books the traditional way.
To the surprise of everyone, the post-Christmas e-book boom continued through February, with self-publishers grabbing an ever-increasing share of the genre bestseller lists. When the AAP figures for this month were released two months later, they revealed a historic milestone: e-books became the dominant format for the first time, outselling both paperback and hardcover, capturing 29.5% of the market. In less happy news, storm clouds were gathering at Borders, and the signs weren’t good.
It was a bleak month for me. The agent’s interest evaporated and he never had the courtesy to explain why. I still expected him to get in touch at this point; it would be another full month before I realized he had simply changed his mind about my book, and wouldn’t even bother to tell me. It was a depressing time. A short of mine, The Reset Button, was collecting nothing but form rejections, I couldn’t summon the strength to keep querying, and my second novel had hit a wall. I began to doubt whether I had the requisite ability or tenacity.
While John Locke was posting record numbers and dominating the bestseller lists, two other writers caught the headlines. Amanda Hocking leveraged her phenomenal self-publishing success into a $2m deal while Barry Eisler shocked the publishing world by walking away from half a million dollars to self-publish.
I had reached rock bottom, and considered walking away from writing altogether. The Hocking and Eisler deals made me consider self-publishing anew. While both moved in opposite directions, I saw both developments as a validation of self-publishing. I started hanging around Kindle Boards and realized that success was far deeper and wider than the handful of names making the news. I spent the last week of the month wrestling with a decision on whether to self-publish A Storm Hits Valparaíso. The arguments of Joe Konrath et al made sense, but I was also being swayed by the fearmongering of the defenders of the status quo. I just couldn’t decide.
John Locke’s staggering success (understandably) spawned an army of imitators. Everyone started freaking out about 99c books, ignoring the millions of free books that had been around for years and hadn’t brought the industry to its knees or put all writers in the poorhouse. At the same time, bookstores were in serious trouble across the world. The biggest chain in Australia collapsed, and the main chain in the UK announced the closure of hundreds of stores.
I broke my impasse by deciding to self-publish some shorts. I figured I could see if I enjoyed the experience without “risking” my novel (or the increased costs to publish it). Besides, that was still with three top agents, and I wanted to at least hear what they had to say. My aim was to get something uploaded before the end of the month (which I managed by a couple of hours), and document my experiences on this blog. I think my first post had four views.
It became clear that the e-book revolution would be no respecter of national borders when the frenzy spread to the UK. Amazon announced they were now selling more e-books than all print formats combined. And literary agents began attracting negative headlines as they attempting to figure out a way to make money in this new world. The old order was fragmenting, and something messy and chaotic (and beautiful) was emerging in its stead.
My first e-book If You Go Into The Woods went live, quickly followed by another short, Transfection. I sold more than 150 copies in my first month and was enjoying the process so much that I pulled my novel from the last three agents considering it. I was going all in. And to celebrate, I wrote a haiku.
In a slow news month, a major US agency (kind of) moved into publishing, JK Rowling moved into self-publishing, and John Locke announced the sale of his millionth Kindle book – and that was just the last week in the month. Earlier in June, two indie authors made history in the UK, the malevolent hawkers of 99c books were accused of destroying minds, publishers were charged with systematically under-reporting e-book sales (and underpaying their authors), and VS Naipul was outed as a prize mysogynist.
My plan to release A Storm Hits Valparaíso hit the skids when I got an editorial report which sent me running in the wrong direction for most of the month. My current editor saved me from making a complete hash of it, but I decided to park the project towards the end of June and began work on Let’s Get Digital instead while I considered her suggestions.
Borders inched closer to liquidation, print continued its death spiral, being pounded into submission by the relentless march of e-books, and Amazon began signing successful self-publishers to their new imprint mystery and thriller imprint, Thomas & Mercer, adding J Carson Black to their existing roster of Joe Konrath, Blake Crouch, and Barry Eisler.
I released Let’s Get Digital: How To Self-Publish, And Why You Should which quickly became my top-seller and almost cracked the Top 1000. I made the PDF version free here which was so popular it crashed WordPress.
Amazon continued to add successful indies to their roster, signing Michael Wallace and Scott Nicholson. John Locke signed a highly unusual print distribution deal with Simon & Schuster, which not only allowed him to retain e-rights, but all his rights – essentially hiring the publisher as his printer and distributor and paying them royalties. The arch-defenders of trade publishing were dancing in the aisles when the comprehensive BISG report was released appearing to show the industry in rude health. However, all was not as it seemed. Finally, a class action suit was launched against Apple and five major publishers, alleging e-book price-fixing.
Let’s Get Digital made a big splash picking up some key endorsements, some big book blog reviews, and some tasty blurb quotes. The resultant sales meant I recouped the $1,000 publication costs in just over a month. I started working on the “final pass” of A Storm Hits Valparaíso, but soon realized that it needed wholesale changes.
I was on holidays for the first two weeks of the month and have zero idea what happened in the publishing industry (btw, if Stephen King decided to self-publish or anything like that, someone should really fill me in). In the second half of the month, Amazon opened their Spanish site, Scott Nicholson shared a radical solution to translation costs, and four new Kindles were launched.
I had a huge slump in sales, and started to think outside the box about how to turn it around. I wasn’t too concerned though as I hadn’t released a new title in some time, and my primary aim was to get my novel out, once it was at the required standard. I thought that would take another week or two. The best laid plans of mice and men…
Amazon kicked off the month by opening the French Kindle Store and signing yet another indie. Kobo responded by signing two key partnerships in both France and the UK which could revolutionize their fortunes in both markets. Finally, I looked at what was driving growth in European markets, and what was slowing it.
It was another slow sales month for me, but exciting things were starting to happen. I signed deals to translate Let’s Get Digital into French and Spanish, and launched a crowdfunding exercise to cover the costs of publishing my next novel.
The month opened with some (more) bad news for large publishers: AAP figures showed that new e-book revenue wasn’t quite replacing the fall off in print. Kobo were purchased in a deal which could have huge implications for the international e-book market. Penguin launched a vanity-esque self-publishing imprint, which attracted widespread criticism. And a best-selling self-published novel inexplicably disappeared from Amazon UK.
My sales finally turned around, November besting September and October combined. Let’s Get Digital got it’s 50th five star review, and I celebrated by raising the price to $3.99. I was interested to see if sales would remain the same, or dip. They rose, giving me my second best month in terms of income, and by far the best outside the time of a new release. My crowdfunding exercise was oversubscribed, generating $2,300 in pre-orders for A Storm Hits Valparaíso – which blew me away. It also had the happy side effect of putting in place a strict deadline for completing and releasing the book.
Amazon owned December in news terms: they opened Kindle Stores in Spain and Italy, shocked veteran writers by paying royalties in time for Christmas, announced they were selling (well) over a million Kindles a week, and, just when we thought we had the self-publishing game figured out, tearing up the rule-book with KDP Select.
I was going to do a big post on New Year’s resolutions, but I’m keeping it simple this year: write great stories and lots of them.
Happy New Year everyone! Thank you for all your support this year. My professional career has really turned around in 2011 – selling around 1,800 books in my first seven months, hitting 5,000 free downloads, and pulling in well over $5,000 – and that’s all down to you guys.
I’m not making enough to live off, but for the first time in my writing career I can see a path to that point – and that’s a beautiful thing. I’m getting checks from Amazon each month which are paying my rent and lots of bills, and they are getting bigger all the time.
The market feels like it has doubled since December 25th. Probably because there are millions of new readers out there filling up their devices right now.
Go get em!