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The Way In

February 13, 2011

This post is an expansion (and partial reprint) of a comment I left on Alex J. Kane’s blog the other day in response to a very nice post he made about cover letters, e-publishing, and the career path of up-and-comers.  It might help to read Alex’s post first.  Or it might not.  Your call.

One of the big questions on the mind of every writer, publisher, editor, and agent is this: where are ebooks taking the market?  The Kindle is the primary culprit here, producing sales of electronically published work for pros and newbies alike.  Everyone that publishes through Kindle seems to be registering sales.  Not all spectacular numbers, mind you, but for some of us any positive number is…well, positive.

I’ve been following a friend’s study of ebook sales (an established pro without a big name but a name nonetheless) and it seems (in his studies) that the key to ebook sales is other ebook sales. The more times your book/story sells, the more it will show up on “people who bought this item also bought…” lists. This puts your story in the eye-line of people likely to buy it, and the cycle continues. It is a bit of a “turtles all the way down” strategy, though. To inspire those first sales to reach numbers that perpetuate the rest of the cycle, you need to grab an audience. Sales to big mags can help with that, as can appearing on a television show or buying up billboard space in every city in North America.  Selling a novel to a publishing house can also work, of course.  Somehow you need to get it started, but there is evidence to suggest the reaction will self-sustain for a while even through self-publishing.  The idea that you need a publisher behind your book ay be becoming a myth of the olden days.  A running start may well be all you need.

I’m awfully tempted to Kindle a collection of my own stuff. I could do it and I have a tiny bit of street cred (WotF and my eventual Escape Pod appearance) to propel things a little. It might prove more profitable to sell the stories in ones and twos rather than in a big omnibus since price seems a driving factor of Kindle sales. 20,000 words for a buck? People take a chance. They like it and they drop more dollars for more words.  And then turtles, turtles, turtles.

But I still feel like it’s too early. I don’t want to start the roller coaster too soon lest I get stuck in the loop. There’s a chance I won’t get stuck, but I don’t want to risk it. Perhaps I’ll end up waiting too long and find too much coaster traffic to ever reach the loop, let alone get through it. Market saturation may not be too far ahead.

Selling to a mag is a guaranteed amount of money…but hard to achieve. Going it alone on Kindle is a lot easier to get money…but no guaranteed amount. Two different gambles. Which is the better lottery ticket, PowerBall or MegaMillions?

As a traditional kind of guy, I’m still wandering traditional kinds of routes, finally getting a few select editors to recognize my name and pay my rejection letters some special attention. It’s a slow process, but I’m making progress. If I wasn’t, I’d likely take the other road. Either way, I suspect success in the future will require both roads to some extent. The all-or-nothing approach is the riskiest of all.

As a matter of fact, I’ve been engaged in some conversation with other WotF winners about where ebook rights will fit into future book contracts for those of us that do continue along the traditional route.  They’ll likely be the hot item that both sides want.  If I can sell a self-published ebook for a fraction of what a hard cover goes for and still make more money on it, I’d like to do that.  I dare say that a publisher that provides professional editing and such deserves the right to sell the electronic version that they influenced.  I also dare say the author deserves a bigger cut of those no-upfront-cost sales.  I confess that I don’t relish the idea of negotiating such things.  That’s what agents are for.  In fact, that’s always been what agents are for: negotiations, not talent searches.

Also presented in Alex’s post was a discussion as to whether small press and semi-pro sales belong in a submission cover letter.  My recent strategy is to only list the one or two biggest sales and provide a link to my full bibliography.  That way I am demonstrating competence and a track record without seeming desperate when I list zines and anthologies no one has ever heard of.  Semi-pro and lower-paying sales are for the benefit of the author, not really their career.  If you’ve not made any professional-rate sales (I hesitate to just call them “professional sales” lest I detract from the true value of the achievement of other sales), you’re not likely to impress a pro market with your backlist.  That doesn’t mean they won’t prefer a sale or two mentioned.  If someone gave you money for something you wrote, that suggests you are not totally incompetent.  So this is good.  However, a brief cover letter suggests confidence in the story itself.  It’s like the interviewee that won’t stop talking because he/she knows their resume isn’t up to snuff.  Here’s the story; I’ve sold to market XXX before; thanks for your consideration.  One low-end sale is as impressive as eight.  Mention your best and move on.

I’ll be the first to admit that it’s hard to break into the market these days.  Writers of the Future has been a big help, but it was no magic key.  It merely showed me the door.  I still have to either convince someone on the other side to let me in or start trying to batter my way through.  There’s more than one “right way” to make it happen.  The only wrong way is to stop writing.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. February 14, 2011 9:53 am

    It’s easy to feel rushed to publish. I sold my first story last month and I’m desperate for another one; but it might be months, or years, before I do again. So, understandably, I’m considering e-publishing. However, I like what you said about getting stuck on a roller coaster. It would be very easy to just e-book everything I write, and no longer remain patient enough to wait a week, a month, sometimes six months or more to hear back from an editor – even for rejections. The faster I see my work “Becoming,” the faster I would expect it to Become. This is actually the biggest problem with submitting to fast turnaround markets like Lightspeed and Fantasy; it makes it harder to wait for the slower editors to get back to you. Anyway, I’m planning to experiment with an e-book soon, but only because it is a 9,000 word story I am very confident in, and since it is 9,000 words it has proven difficult to sell and has few viable markets. I figure, how can it hurt to just do one? I’ll be learning, and potentially prepping for the future. And I don’t want to see the story disappear into a trunk. E-publishing is something that ought to be done, though I’m not yet convinced it should be done with abandon.

    • Scott W. Baker permalink*
      February 14, 2011 10:01 am

      9000 words can be tough to place. Make sure you’ve tried Writers of the Future! It tends to have one of the longest wait times but the benefits can really pay off. Plus even an HM gives the feel of some credibility.

  2. February 14, 2011 11:37 pm

    Good thoughts, Oso.

    I’m doing both ways, because I figure why not capitalize on every means available, right? 🙂 I’m sending all my short stories to pro (and a few select semi-pro) markets and sending novel queries to at least 20 editors (and giving them 3-6 months to respond) before I put a work up online. I’m also writing a series just for e-book release (the novels are short at ~50,000 words, so not really marketable to NY) and putting up a few collections of stories that have either made the submission run or sold and I have the rights back.
    There’s money in both methods and no harm trying both (as long as you are professional about things, which has always been true).

    Now, if I hadn’t sold three stories last year and if I wasn’t at the point where getting a form rejection is practically a novelty event would I dip my toes into e-publishing? I don’t know. Maybe not. It’s hard to say what the right way is or how to know you are ready, but that’s one reason I feel that going both ways can’t hurt. If your writing sucks, no one is going to buy your stuff on either path (traditional or self-pub). Some things don’t change even if the format changes 🙂

    But yeah, this only works if you have the product to sell and are putting in the work. As Oso says, the only truly wrong way is to quit writing. 🙂

  3. February 15, 2011 3:09 pm

    I’ll be dipping my toe in the water later this year with an original e-novel and probably one, or possibly two, short-story “packs” released directly to the platforms. My approach is part of a two-front method: attack the traditional New York route while also going direct to electronic, to see which route — if either — begins sparking for me. Ideally, both would spark and reinforce each other, but this presumes I’d find an audience with which to resonate. That’s the key. No audience resonance, no sales. People make fun of Hocking (electronic) and Meyer (traditional) but both of these women have sure found a way to make their audiences sit up and pay attention! I’d love to figure out how to do that.

    • Scott W. Baker permalink*
      February 15, 2011 4:19 pm

      @Brad: I suspect you’ll be able to build an audience from your Analog gigs. The more places we see your name, the more opportunities you have to pick up readers, especially if the name sighting implies quality, which Analog does.

    • February 15, 2011 7:40 pm

      Yeah, Brad, I can’t imagine being published in Analog will hurt you at all 🙂 Especially since your serialized novel is in the same genre as your published pieces so the audience crossover will be very easy.

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