Amazon Publishing From the Low-Selling Author Point of View
I’m about to have my 7th book published as an Amazon Kindle or other e-reader. None of my books sell all that well. I average one to two a day, although I have hopes for the latest one, due out any day now. I have a business license, so I can write off some of my costs, and my tax person makes sure I show a very small profit each year on a total income of a couple of thousand dollars or less.
My experiences provide an interesting (at least to me) contrast to the much publicized battles between Amazon and large publishing firms over book pricing.
A bit of background: I write because I enjoy the mental and physical process, as well as the result. To a large extent, the intended audience of everything I write is… me. That some others enjoy what I write, either on this web site or by reading one of my books is a pleasant bonus that also provides encouragement.
I sold the first piece of writing I ever submitted. This was, against all odds, a science fiction story that appeared in “Rod & Custom” magazine, in 1972. Probably the first and last science fiction story to appear in a car magazine.
Oh, the excitement! I rushed out to the store and purchased 9 copies, consuming some of the $100 or so I was paid. Most of the rest went to celebratory dinner out with Susan.
First lesson in publishing. When you sell a story, you sell the words. I was appalled to see the illustration the magazine paid an artist to draw that appeared behind the words, because it was incorrect!
I sold the second piece I submitted. This was a story about our motorcycle honeymoon, focused on the motorcycle part, of course. That one appeared in “Road Rider” magazine, now known as “Motorcycle Consumer News.”
Then I sold the THIRD piece I submitted, this one a truly awful poem about motorcycle riding that also appeared in “Road Rider.”
Now that I had sold three in a row and taken in at least $225, my future was secure. I would soon leave behind the ten grand or so of annual income from teaching junior high and become a highly paid author.
Emboldened by success, I set out to write a story for “Playboy” magazine. Back in those days Playboy paid ten grand for a published story, a year’s income for me. Doing this allowed them to publish work by some of the best writers in the world. Undaunted by the competition, I created a story I’m still fond of today, unlike the previously published poem, which was so bad I’ll be doomed to the hell of bad poets for all eternity in the fullness of time.
In my story, the main character road races a Corvette. We owned one at the time, although much older and certainly not a race car. My character had sacrificed a lot of time, sweat, pain, and money on his racing efforts, and was leading the season points’ race. As the story progresses, his marriage is falling apart. Just as the final race of the season begins, he learns that his wife has been having an affair with his chief rival, another Corvette racer. Enraged, he begins abusing his car savagely and takes the lead. As the race progresses, he figures out that he is over-driving the car and using up the brakes and the engine. If he continues he may win, or he may blow up. Gradually it dawns on him that the car means more to him than his wife does, and he slows down to preserve what he has. His rival passes him and wins the race, but he’s fine with that because he has preserved his sanity and decided what is important to him.
I wrote that story, and worked on it, editing various passages over and over, I took a post-graduate writing class at the U of W, where most of the other students and the professor were “real” authors. I read portions of the story aloud each week and took in their wise counsel. By the end of the summer term it was done.
I sent it off to Playboy and awaited the result. What came was the classiest rejection letter I ever received. A small piece of note paper with the words “David, Not for us. Thanks.” It was signed by Hugh Hefner’s daughter, who at that time was the editor in chief of the magazine.
Forging ahead, I created other pieces, and soon learned lesson #2. When you send something in, there is no guarantee you’ll ever hear anything back. Sometimes your hard work just vanishes into a dark hole that probably resembles a waste basket. Publishers do not seem to have any requirements for basic tenets of politeness. If they did respond, it would be months later. Usually just a form letter that gave no indication that your work had even been read.
But it could be worse. I got one letter from the (then) editor of Cycle World, a renowned author of several books and hundreds of articles. He went to great lengths to trash my work, pretty much challenging my nerve in writing anything at all and having the gall to waste his time reading it. I could not imagine what would spur someone to such thoughtless malice.
I heard a story of an author who submitted a poem to a magazine and got back an envelope filled with just the ashes of his burned work. That one was, I have to admit, kind of funny.
I did succeed at times, and had articles printed in newspapers and magazines here and there.
At one point I did a series of essays on education that ran in the “Bellevue American” newspaper. I was invited to a meeting to discuss making my articles a weekly feature, and moving them from the editorial pages to the front section. Excitement!
I met with a person with a big title who looked like a cross between Gordon Gecko and that boss in “Office Space.”
Anyway, this guy was slick to the max in dress and speech and demeanor. He was all excited about what we could do together. I agreed with pretty much everything he said. I floated home to await further developments.
I was aware that Dave Barry, the famous humor columnist, had “self-syndicated” his column for years out of his own home before moving to the Miami Herald and tremendous and well-deserved success. I wrote him a letter about what I was doing, asking for any advice he was willing to share. I was so grateful to him, as he took the time to send me a four page hand-written letter. He pretty much went over everything I was doing, told me I was on the right track, and wished me well. What a nice man.
I never heard another word from the guy at the Bellevue American.
I completed my first novel and sent if off to Dell Publishing, at that time the largest publisher in the world. Never received any word at all.
I wrote a lengthy piece on motorcycle commuting that was published in the AMA magazine. I think it went for $600, which was real money, I wrote a second piece that was even longer, and they agreed to publish that one. After almost a year of no news and no appearance of the piece, I sent a letter of inquiry. I was informed that they’d changed their mind, and included was a check for $600. I later learned that this is what is known as a “kill fee.” I wrote back and said that since the 2nd article was about 50% longer than the $600 that they had paid for the first one, I reckoned they owed me another $400.
I received a carefully written letter that essentially told me to pound sand.
Weeks later I was chatting at a soccer game with a parent who worked in publishing, and he told me that $600 was the largest kill fee he’d ever heard of.
In the early 90’s I completed a script about a junior high school that was to be pilot for a TV series. Rather than focus on the students, mine dealt with the faculty. I thought the staff was much funnier than the students. I had a friend whose uncle had one of the major roles on the “M.A.S.H” TV show. She read my script and really liked it. She sent it to her uncle, and he liked it as well and took it in to Disney Studios. More excitement!
Nine months later it came back to me. No comment. No communication. Nada.
In sum, if you’re a free-lance author submitting works to magazines and publishing houses, you’re playing a game where the other team has all the power and all the knowledge and writes all the rules. They have no responsibilities to you at all, including timeliness or even basic manners.
You can hire an agent, of course, but now you’re adding to your own expenses. The really good agents are expensive, but that cancels out because they probably do not want to work with you. You can get a lesser agent with accordant lesser odds of success, but those odds never rise above “poor.”
Along comes Amazon and the concept of self-publishing of e-books. You can publish anything you want. You choose a couple of categories where you wish your book to be listed. You set the price, and Amazon takes a cut on a sliding scale – the more you ask for your book the bigger a slice they take. You can even set the price at $0, and Amazon will offer your book for free to customers at no cost to you.
What you get in return is the exposure of your book to millions of people all over the world. Your books are for sale 24 hours a day, every day. You can check where your book ranks in sales in the categories you’ve chosen, and the rankings changes are posted each hour. You can also look up sales per month. You get paid two months after the sales for a given month. At the end of the year Amazon will send you a document with your total earnings. It’s all very simple, except for the actual publishing part. I’ve benefited from the tech skills of my son and my friend Gary Stebbins for this, so I don’t know how hard that is.
One my favorite aspects of all this is the democracy of it. If people like your book they will tell their friends, and you will sell more. If your book is found wanting, it will sell less. For a guide, you can set up your book so people can read a sample. Purchasers can write reviews that will be posted with your book. The reviews include their thoughts, and a scale of 1-5. I suspect Amazon does not publish reviews lower than 3, or I have never gotten one that low – which seems unlikely.
I have wanted to write back to most of these people to thank them, but the system will not allow that. It is humbling to read a positive review from someone I’ve never met who may be in a state or country many time zones away.
The customer is protected as well. Customers can pay Amazon a monthly fee and then “borrow” a book for two weeks or so without paying for it. I get some money from that, but I’ve never bothered to learn exactly how that works. In addition, purchasing customers have 24 hours to sample the book and can get their money back if they don’t like it.
Here’s an example of how it works. In 2001 or so Motorcycle 101 was published, both as a CD to be read on a computer (that did not work very well) and as a paperback. 1,000 copies were printed. I think Cycle Barn purchased about 2/3rd of them, and used them for promotional gifts for new bike purchasers, door prizes, and other “do-gooder” purposes. It was fun for first time motorcycle purchasers to be given the book as a thank you for their business and then directed over to my desk to have it signed.
That book retailed for $19.95, and I received $3 of that. That is how it works in the publishing world. When I chose to convert it to an e-book I updated and revised it quite a bit and changed the title to Motorcycle 201. (I know, my cleverness knows no bounds) That book sells for $4.95 from Amazon as an e-reader. I get $3.75. The customer saves $15.00 and I make more money per copy. That seems like a win-win for everyone, and I have now sold many more copies of the latter book than the first one in far less time.
I’m sure there are various ways to promote your books, at your own expense, that I have not explored. Amazon will do some promotion by suggesting books to people who have purchased others in the same vein.
For a trip to rose-tinted goggles land, I’ve heard that if your book sells in really large numbers, a publisher will come to you to negotiate the rights to put out a physical edition of the book. Now the game has become much more equitable. In the unlikely event one of my books reaches that exalted status I intend to be much more civilized with the publishers than they have been with me.
All the press coverage of the board room battles between Amazon and traditional companies seems to have ignored what I thought would be a central part of the discussion. What is being done for, and to, the people who create the books in the first place? The authors they deign to interview are mostly wildly successful writers with dozens of books to their credit, but I bet that the majority of authors are much more similar to me than to Stephen King.
All in all – my thanks to local Seattle “real author” Jack Lewis and his wife Shasta for getting me clued in to e-reader publishing, (you really should purchase all of his books). More at jaxworx.com
Huzzah for Amazon!
Copyright 2014 David Preston