The Shatzkin Files

Would million ebook-selling author John Locke be better off with a publisher? I think he very well might…

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The experience of the most successful self-published author I know of, just described in his newest book, makes a powerful but unintended case that authors who want to really make money are still better off with a publisher.

I discovered the author John Locke a few months ago when I was learning a bit about the self-publishing world from Joe Konrath and Barry Eisler. I tried one of his 99 cent books and loved it. Now I’ve read four. He strikes me as a cross between the long-dead Jim Thompson and the very current Carl Hiaasen. More sophisticated readers than I have told me his plots are derivative. None of the books struck me that way, but it could well be that savvy acquiring editors would have dismissed him if had no track record of commercial appeal.

Locke has just published a new book explaining (and titled) “How I Sold One Million eBooks in Five Months”. It reveals a hard-working, tightly-focused, very sophisticated marketer with a clear plan and the discipline to follow it. Every self-publishing author should read it, of course, which is the market Locke identifies. One of his key tenets is to really understand whom a book is intended for so that the content itself and the marketing approach are always aimed at precise targets.

One of the problems Locke sees with publishers is that he thinks that they will always push to broaden the appeal of a book, which he thinks would diminish its appeal to the core niche audience that he sees as the key to successful author brand-building. I’m about to reinforce that stereotype because it is obvious to me that he really missed identifying a key target audience with his new book. Editors and marketers in publishing houses ought to read it. They have a lot to learn from John Locke’s insights and techniques.

His book will help them make better publishing decisions and marketing decisions. His book will help them make more money.

But if John Locke’s also interested in making the most money, he ought to rethink whether issuing his books at 99 cents without a publisher is really the best commercial strategy.

Let’s do the math. Locke has sold 1 million ebooks at 99 cents each. He gets 35% of the revenue, so that amounts to something less than $350,000 (credit card fees are deducted from the net). There are some production costs involved (he hires a cover designer and he gets help formatting his books), so knock off another ten or fifteen grand. That means his net for nine novels averages out to about $35,000 each. He’s getting no apparent revenue from print and he’s getting no print exposure in stores which would further stimulate online sales. At 35 cents per copy, he’s earning less than the per unit royalty he’d get from a publisher selling his books for about $2.99, the point at which the 70% payment from agency re-sellers would kick in, even if the publisher didn’t yield at all on the now-prevailing 25% royalty standard. And if his books were $9.99, he’d be getting $1.75 a copy from a publisher, or about five times what he’s getting now.

Of course, if Locke himself sold the ebooks at $2.99, he’d be taking in six times more per book, or about $2.10 a copy.

But, either way, he seems to be leaving a lot of money on the table. Without a publisher’s efforts, he’s certainly leaving a lot of marketing on the table too. And the print in stores is only the single most important part of it. Selling even a modest 10,000 hardcovers would net him in excess of $20,000 in royalties, or more than half of what he’s averaged so far from each of his ebooks.

It would be facile, and I think it would be mistaken, to attribute Locke’s success primarily to the fact that his books sell for 99 cents. In fact, Locke himself bristles at that notion. He points out in his new “how-to” book that there are a lot of authors selling for 99 cents that haven’t achieved the sales that he’s achieved. He downplays the degree to which that would be due to the appeal of his writing but instead attributes his sales to his thoughtful and systematic marketing efforts.

I agree that his thoughtful and systematic marketing efforts are more important than his 99 cent price. (That’s sort of the point to this whole post!) But there is nothing about what he’s done that couldn’t be just as well done to support a book from a publisher that is in hardback at $20 or more and is a $9.99 ebook. Would he sell as many as the 100,000 or so units he’s averaging per title that way?

Nobody knows for sure, but with the same effort on his part and the additional marketing, exposure, and accessibility he’d gain with a publisher, my own hunch would be that he’d sell more. I’ve read four of the books featuring his major character Donovan Creed and I’m nowhere near sick of him yet. I’m as cautious as anyone about generalizing from my own experience, but I know that if the next one were ten bucks instead of one, it wouldn’t deter me. I pay ten bucks or more for most of the ebooks I read, as do a lot of people.

One of the things that the ebook retailers know for sure but that publishers can only guess about is the degree to which the purchasers of 99 cent books are a market separate from the purchasers of “branded” books at $9.99 and up. Many believe, and I’m among them, that there are distinctly separate groups of buyers here and that people like me, who mix it up, are the exception. If that’s true, there would be some risk for Locke (and to an acquiring publisher) in switching him over to a model which requires that he get his success from a different pool of customers and makes it hard for his existing readership to come along.

But if the markets are distinct, there is also some great potential reward. If there are people who only choose from the cheap books, there are also people who want to choose from the professionally validated books, the ones from the major publishers. The more you believe the markets are distinct, the more opportunity there could be for Locke in using what he’s done to launch himself independently as the springboard to a career as a published author with a major player.

Amanda Hocking succeeded with an independent effort but then signed with a major house. Barry Eisler intended to leave publishers behind and do it himself, but quickly found that Amazon’s publishing program — how long before we start referring to the Big Seven? — actually suited him more than doing-it-himself. Now we do the quick math on Locke and find that it constitutes a weak argument for the economic benefits of self-publishing.

It is important to for us all to remember that we’re still in a world where most of the books are sold in print and in stores; that this is more true outside the US than it is here; and that it will remain true outside the US for quite a while longer than it will here. The challenges of the digital age for publishers are very real and the self-publishing option is much more viable than it was a decade ago, or even three years ago. But there’s still plenty of life in the legacy model. I’d be surprised if some big publishers aren’t preparing offers for Mr. Locke that he’d be obliged to consider seriously if his goal is to make the most money from his writing that he possibly can. If Amanda Hocking could get $2 million for four books, how well is John Locke really doing financially getting less than 20% of that for nine?

The most frequently persuasive argument I can think of for self-publishing is speed to market, particularly for an outsider who doesn’t even yet have an agent. Finding an agent takes time. Getting a proposal up to an agent’s professional standards takes time. Publisher consideration and contract negotiating following offers take time. All of this can often take a year or more; it is rare to accomplish it in six months. And then the publisher will need persuasion to deliver it to the market in less than six months. (This is not irrational on the publishers’ part; maximizing sales in print still requires a long runway because the planning in mass merchant outlets requires assigning specific titles to slots many months in advance. That’s a marketplace reality, not an invention of publishers.)

I think self-publishing as a path to publisher discovery may become a new standard and, if it does, the ebook operations being set up by literary agencies may ultimately be viewed in a different light.

My prediction with Locke is that he will end up getting an offer he can’t refuse from a publisher to create a new character. The Donovan Creed series and his westerns will continue to be issued for 99 cents, but something new will be done the conventional way. And, unless my hunch is way wide of the mark, for the next several years the ones done the conventional way will make Locke a lot more money.

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  • Richard bush

    Great analysis. It makes a great deal of sense to me.

    • Thanks.

      I wonder if it will make sense to John Locke or any of the big publishers!


      • JJ Toner

        I think Joe Konrath should read John Locke’s book before making sweeping statements  about his (Locke’s) methods. First off, John Locke did not sell 1 million books to 1 million people, he sold 1 million books to about 300,000 people who kept (and keep) coming back for more. Second, although I accept that everything we try to do in life involves some element of chance, a carefully-worked-out marketing plan like John’s reduces this element to a minimum. It may be that Locke’s book explains how he sold 1 million books after the event, and we have only John’s word for it that he deliberately set out on this marketing path, but so what? It worked, and it would probably work for others. I accept that different authors have succeeded in different ways. Locke is not suggesting anything else. I’m pretty sure he says as much in his book. Wrt selling his books at more than 99c, he says he probably will some time in the future.

      • I agree that Locke was entirely sensible and measured in his how-to book.
        And I think what he did would work, to some extent, for anybody if they
        followed his advice. The reason I think his “crime” books would sell through
        conventional channels is because I’ve read them and I like them.


    • None of it makes sense to me, as an individual author. Like John Locke, I’m not in this for the money. I made enough money for several lifetimes from my 50 years of publishing non-fiction, most of it recently with a small publisher, in spite of the piddling royalty rates.

      A few years ago, I started on my novelistic career, and I have 8 novels out there so far, though none of them has “taken off” like John’s have done, even though I’ve done much of what his formula requires. My attempts to publish those novels through the Big 6 (or 12, or whatever) met with rudeness at best and absolutely nothing at worst. Probably they’re not that good, but they do sell a few as both ebooks and paper books. And that’s all I want–some appreciative people to read them. And for that, 100 is as good as 100,000.

      As for the “traditional publishers,” if one of them were to offer me a huge advance for any of my books, I would turn them down. Why? I don’t want to waste my life dealing with them. Like John, I have a faithful audience (for my non-fiction, which sells for $9.99 mostly) and my fiction (which sells for much less as I experiment with price points). I’m writing for them, and I love them. Once I had enough money for my life, that love was the only thing worth working for.

      • All reasonable choices for you to make. Money isn’t everything. It is just
        simpler sitting here to see how somebody one doesn’t know could make more
        money; it isn’t so obvious what would give them more satisfaction.


  • I think you left out some of the math.  How much would a big publisher take of his ebook sales?  I have read that they expect something like 35 points, for putting in 2 hours of work, to format it.  A friend of mine, has been tearing his hair out, battling with his publisher, because they want to control the price point.  He just had his book released on Nook, at a much higher price point than he wanted, and he doesn't get to keep all the revenue.

    I have a publisher and they are only handling the print version.  I suspect that most people who sign with a big publisher, don't keep all the ebook revenue, because they are afraid to learn how to actually get their works formatted correctly.

    I agree, there are advantages, but if you make the case, without including all of the pitfalls. Big publisher wouldn't have let him charge $2.99 for his books, or 99 cents (his actual price), and they wouldn't have given him 100% of the revenue.  They would have demanded a much higher price point, and that might have kept him off the top 100 lists.  You might have never found his books, and he may still be hoping that one of them catches fire.

    I like math. I appreciate the analysis, but as a former data analyst for GEICO, I would have been severely punished for not analyzing the situation completely.

    • There is nothing left out of the math. The assumption was that the publisher

      would keep 75% of the ebook revenue. The “magic trick” is that I'm assuming

      the publisher can sell the ebook for more money and not damage the sale

      because they'll market to audiences Locke doesn't reach and it is already

      clear that most ebook buyers will pay much more than a buck (look at the

      ebook bestseller lists!)

      You're welcome to accept only your own assumptions but you're mistaken

      suggesting that I didn't factor in the publisher's share.


      • Then I apologize for my erroneous assumption.  (I admit to having not read your portion about the 25% correctly.  Sorry.)

        I do agree with your point that he does seem to be leaving a lot of money on the table, but only because I think $2.99 would have yielded similar results.  I have read a lot of blogs and such, and it seems that the economics of the 99 cent vs $2.99 are inelastic.  If his books are inelastic, then economics would say, he would have earned more throughput at $2.99.

        Let me ask a question then.  Of course, I am only asking for your opinion, because there isn't any way to get hard numbers.

        Do you think that he has earned some value for his brand, with the book, “How I…”?

        John Locke has gotten a lot of press for being 1st Indie to reach 1 Million.  Had would not have gotten that moniker, with the traditional publishers.  Do you think that the buzz around his indie success, holds some value?

        I only ask the previous question, because I had never heard of him before Monday.  I have asked 20 of my followers on Twitter, if they had heard of him, and they hadn't.

        I ask this next question, not having any idea of the answer.  Is it possible he could have been rejected by all the major publishers?

        Also, I don't know the answer to this one.  Would they have allowed him to switch genre, like he did with the 2 westerns?

        It is entirely possible you are correct on you analysis, I just find it difficult to believe he would have reached such heights with his brand, if he had been with a publisher.  I mainly feel this way, because of the part in his “How I…” book, where he described the thousands of emails sent out, by his publicist, with zero results.  It seems to me, he might have ended up working for years to get all of his titles in print.  If it took him three years to achieve the same $350,000 revenue, and he had to give up all the “How To…” revenue, then he would be well behind where, where he will be in another 31 months.

        Again, you may be right. I am just of a different opinion, which may be entirely wrong.

      • First of all, I am not suggesting that John Locke should have done one thing

        different so far. He has nine books out selling, a lot of fans, a brand

        name, two series with legs, and he's only been at it for a year. What he's

        done is fantastic.

        It's an open question to me whether any publisher would have “discovered”

        him before he made himself commercially successful. I think doing what he

        did is just as good an idea as getting an agent. If he'd started out a year

        ago to try to get an agent, he'd be lucky to have a book coming out now.

        I'm just saying that now he would clearly be a valuable commodity. In his

        book about “how I did it” he doesn't feel as open to the idea of working

        with a publisher as I think he should be. I think he'd make a lot more money

        if he did. And I'd be surprised if it would be hard for him to get a deal

        now. I suspect he can wait for them to call him, but I'd definitely answer

        the phone and talk with an open mind if I were in his shoes.


      • It is an interesting discussion.  🙂

  • Chris

    I agree with everything you say ere, Mike.

    That said, John has certainly carved pout an audience – and quite possibly some career longevity – with his 99 cent price point. Yes, he could have partaken in some 'dynamic pricing' but it still isn't too late. More books will come. His core audience will grow and I'd be surprised if any of that core audience would bemoan a price increase.

    For me, I think those current titles of his could do with some serious cover work. There wouldn't be a cover designer out there that didn't agree with me (I hope!).

    So, a more pro design.
    Dynamic pricing.
    Print marketing.

    So, yeah… 'mainstream' 'traditional' 'legacy' publishing just might be the go.

    • My impression from reading the “how to” book is that Locke has a pretty firm

      commitment in his own mind to giving the people who got him started a

      continuing 99 cent experience. And the idea of another series to test a

      different model is really his idea; he spends a lot of time explaining how

      he set up the westerns separately from the Creed books and didn't make an

      excessive effort to make the old audience buy the new product.

      Right now, the audience for expensive branded books is bigger than the

      audience for cheap books, if you believe the Amazon and Nook bestseller

      lists. That shows the power of brand and the power of the marketing the big

      guys can still do. And it also shows how much dreck you have to wade through

      to find a John Locke in the 99 cent pile if that is how you choose to shop.


      • Chris

        One of my concerns for Locke is how deep his loyalty runs with his 'publisher for hire' Telemachus Press. I hope he assesses his future with the businessman's mind he obviously has.Personally I would suggest he hire a cover designer that freelances for legacy publishers. The cost may run $500 – $1000 but his books should benefit from it… if only through branding. I would bet money on his current covers losing some sales. A good cover may not gain a lot of sales but a bad one will certainly lose them.

      • Chris, evaluating whether any particular cover gains sales or loses sales is

        outside my personal comfort zone. I am quite sure Locke thinks his covers

        are helping sales; he's commissioning and paying for them. It actually would

        be possible at the retailer level to *test* the impact of different covers

        (rotate four of them when the book appears and see which one has the highest

        batting average after a reasonable number of attempts.) But I'm not sure if

        that ability is feasibly in reach of anybody else.

        This is an advantage to Amazon in the online world. Of course, the weakness

        in Amazon's proposition as a “publisher” is the point to this piece —

        online is only a part of the market.


      • Chris

        A far easier way to split test this is to run  campaign through Facebook ads. The ‘click-ability’ of each cover variant will be found very fast. You can even niche target your audience. Probably cost less then 50 bucks to do it over a couple of hundred thousand page views. CTR will yield good data there.

        Back to your post: John may be a good fit for legacy publishers simply for the fact that he is producing stories people want to read. I imagine that fact alone would translate to sales in the offline world.

        As for his marketing efforts. He knows what is working. He’s obviously tested everything – he says as much because he knows the mainstream ads didn’t work. What worked was his twitter to blog push. And it sounds like there was a lag between his mainstream ads and his twitter work that he was able to pin-point the sales jump.

        Again, I’ve said this before… very few people are actually going to follow his advice. This is not something that is easy to do. Locke’s process of twitter, email, blog and constant contact is extremely time consuming. It also requires a very good voice – John is a people person. That much is obvious. I implore other authors to read his tweets, posts, interviews and comments throughout the web. He makes others feel wanted and important. There are  very few people who can do this successfully.

        I think the 1 million in question should not be his sales… it should be focusing on why Locke is a one in a million writer/marketer. He’s a born salesman. People will do well to study his voice and actions very closely.


      • People will do well to study his voice and actions very closely.

        I actively bought the Smashwords version to cut it up, getting a highly focused set of pages for my use. John Locke *does* what Seth Godin talks about every day, permission marketing at the most intimate level imaginable.

      • Chris

        SL, I think people will need to dig deeper to really find out how to imitate Locke’s success. Yes, it is the permission marketing aspect that is powerful but I think hat is more powerful is the ‘intimacy’ you mentioned.

        Sure, copying Locke’s system will inevitably yield some success. But the true gold in Locke’s system is John himself. It is the ‘Locke voiced’ content he creates (blog posts, tweets, email replies) within his marketing that is special.

        Locke’s insurance background is obviously where he honed this amiable charm.

        It’s a winner. Even when he puts people in place… he does it with charm and good nature.
        In fact, I would be very surprised if Locke has ruffled any feathers using his ‘author voice’.

      • Agree totally. I spent many hours of effort flogging Twitter, going back through his Tweets, to Nov. when it all started. Remarkable. Stunning. “Author voice” on one hand and crystal clear “Business Voice” when needed. At the rate he’s going, he’ll become a college Master’s program.

        As for “ruffled feathers”, I found *one* incident in my research, a mention that didn’t go over well with a particular person. He instantly said to those involved, “I probably shouldn’t have done that.”…

      • Chris

        SL, you’re probably showing exactly the kind of tenacity needed to implement John Locke’s system successfully!

        Grab a selection of those tweets. Mimic his posts, albeit with your own passion and audience. Give, give and give to your ‘fans’.

        John’s kinda just going door to door with this stuff. Eventually (given the right book) the sales will snowball.

        The hard part is making it all work together. Which I guess is why only one self-pubber has sold a million!!

        BTW: the fact that he expressed regret on the incident you mentioned speaks volumes.

      • LOL, thanks – but my job is to figure out the how & why. My even more tenacious and much more Social author will put it in motion.  She’s AMAZING and with this book by John, our first test was *great*.  😉

      • Chris

        I like Sonia’s effort but – and please forgive me for the critique – I think her post needs a more direct call to action with regards to the novels.

        Note Locke’s most recent blog entry:

        “The book is titled, How I Sold 1 Million eBooks in 5 Months! It’s about me, but it was written for you.  Here’s the link: …”

        First the title, next something for the fans (‘it’s about me’) then the clincher on a personal level (‘it was written for you’). And a final semi-call to action — ‘Here’s the link..’

        You gotta tell people what to do… or a lot of the bastards won’t do anything!  😉

      • No worries, this was targeted to a specific audience, not her book. We were literally testing the waters, to see the effect, figure out the traffic it generates, etc. Her second novel publishing in late July has a vastly different audience that I know how & where to target. She’ll begin her initial tweeting to them in 3 or 4 days. Her big call to action blog post will go up when the book publishes. ;-))

      • Chris

        Good luck!

      • Chris

        ^^^ SL, I should clarify this ^^^

        Maybe wait a week and A/B test the landing page. Run it without the hard call to action (current version) and then run it for a week with the altered version.

        You will, of course, need further traffic from a twitter hit.

  • Joekonrath

    I've made about as much money as Locke has, with about 1/4 of his sales, because I price most of my novels at $2.99.

    I haven't read Locke's how-to book, but I do know that many successful people look at their success and draw conclusions based on hindsight (which is always 20/20). These conclusions (I am successful because I did this) are fallacious. In order for them to be valid, they need to be able to predict success, not explain success. Because they always leave out a major factor: luck.

    Locke, and me, and Hocking, have gotten lucky. Hocking went on the get a legacy deal, IMHO, because she'd never worked with legacy publishers before and it fits her goals. Locke hasn't had a legacy deal, and resists it for personal reasons.

    In either case, success still involves luck.

    Of course, if you have a good book/good cover/good editing/low price, you increase your odds at success. Smart marketing can assist with luck, whether it is from a publisher or from within.

    But giving a legacy publisher 75% is NOT a good idea, in any situation. Ever.

    Locke may be leaving money on the table, and I advised him a while back to raise some of his prices. But Locke's main motivator isn't money. He's doing what he wants, his way, and getting results. So is Amanda Hocking. So am I.

    I don't believe any of us are right or wrong in our approach, as it fits our unique goals. But I do have more experience than either of them, on both sides of the coin, and my reasons for following my path are based around monetary success. That's my goal.

    While legacy publishers still wield some power, and can make authors big offers, they'll be of the “take the money and run” variety. When the Big 6 begin to fall apart, what happens to the rights they still have under contract will be a messy, terrible situation for authors. Just as terrible is signing with a legacy publisher, and waiting 18 months for them to release your ebook for $12.99 while giving you 25% royalties.

    It would be facile, and I think it would be mistaken, to attribute
    Locke’s success primarily to the fact that his books sell for 99 cents.

    The loaded word is “primarily”. I've done enough pricing experiments to pretty much conclusively prove that in the majority of cases, cheaper ebooks sell more copies that those priced higher, but high volume isn't the sweet spot for profit. If Locke had switched some of his ebooks to $2.99, as I've done, he'd have made more money.

    But if all of his books had been $9.99, I'd bet a considerable sum that he wouldn't have had nearly the sales volume, or profit, than he did, even with the same marketing. Price was a major factor, and it continues to be. All the marketing in the world can't create an impulse buy out of something priced too high.

    All of the marketing in the world also can't account for an author “taking off” like Hocking and Locke did. Yes, we can look at various factors (good books, covers, low prices, professional editing) but ultimately they both caught the same wave that makes successes out of all bestsellers: random chance.

    If bestsellers could be made, or explained with a how-to book, then all books would be bestsellers, because authors could follow a predetermined set of rules in order to sell a million copies.

    That isn't the case, and never will be. Each author defines “success” differently, and has a different path to reaching it.

    • Thanks for chiming in, Joe. There's little here I disagree with.

      But I'll stand by what I said. Locke has created two series at a 99 cent

      price point and built them using a technique and workflow he's honed and

      outlined. And it really works. And it would work again. And he knows how he

      did it.

      Having read both his fiction output and his explanation, I believe that if a

      publisher saw him as having bestseller potential he could leverage what he

      does to make vastly more money with some next series with a publisher.

      I read Locke's book and I totally get the fact that he wouldn't be inclined

      to try that. But if he has the conversation with the right people, he might

      change his mind.

      As for your comments on pricing, there are two bands. The self-publishers

      can't price at $9.99 and up and sell any. But, check the bestseller list.

      Most of what is selling is at publisher prices because those are the books

      that sell. That's part of the value a publisher brings to the equation.


      • Joekonrath

        Locke has created two series at a 99 cent 
        price point and built them using a technique and workflow he's honed and
        outlined. And it really works. And it would work again. And he knows how he
        did it.

        He thinks he knows how he did it. That's a vital difference. As I said, if he truly knew, it would be predictive. That means ever writer who does the same thing will have the same results, and we both know that just won't happen.

        Locke sold a million books, but he didn't personally ask a million people to buy them, so he can't claim responsibility for them all. He caught on, and momentum took over (as it does whenever someone becomes famous or something goes viral.) That momentum comes down to being in the right place at the right time.

        The scientific method takes luck out of the equation. There doesn't need to be right place/right time.

        Most of what is selling is at publisher prices because those are the
        books that sell.

        Those are the books that sell because they mimic the print bestsellers, which I'm convinced exist due to their omnipresence. Why does Patterson sell so well? Because he's sold everywhere books are sold. The more books in print, the more they'll sell. The more that sell, the more stores keep ordering them.

        Readers are creatures of habit. Swtiching to a new technology (ereaders) is a challenge, so they're buying what they know and what they're comfortable with.

        “Breaking out” a new author will involve some heavy investment from a publisher, to justify a big print run. It could happen, but only in the near future.

        As time marches onward, the ebook bestseller list will copy the print bestseller lists less and less, because there won't be all of that real-world shelf space supporting titles as more and more bookstores fold. In 18 months, we're looking at a very really possibility of one or both of the major bookstore chains to be gone. Once that reinforcement vanishes, the bestseller list will change. People won't see $12.99 as an alternative to the $25 hardcover, because they won't see the $25 hardcover everywhere. I wouldn't want to have a legacy deal when this happens.

      • Starting from the bottom, there is absolutely no threat that in 18 months

        both of the bookstore chains will be gone. Borders is pretty much gone now

        except for selling off a lot of inventory at distressed prices making things

        harder for everybody else. Barnes & Noble will be with us for quite a while.

        They may be devoting less shelf space to books, but they are definitely not

        going to be gone.

        Your email basically makes the point (to me) that print books still drive a

        lot of awareness and sales of both print and digital. And they drive the

        perception of value that supports higher prices. If we think in terms of

        five or ten or twenty years, there will be tremendous change. But the effect

        we're talking about here definitely has years left to it, not months.


      • Joekonrath

        But the effect
        we’re talking about here definitely has years left to it, not months.

        I’m pretty sure that no one would have predicted, 24 months ago, that Borders would be going out of business. B&N will probably transition into an online-only store, because Nook growth won’t be able to sustain print losses. Pure speculation on my part, but I see it as inevitable.

        The last 18 months have been tumultuous. The next 18 will be as well.

        I guess we’ll just have to wait and see who’s right. But whether B&N lasts for 18 months or 18 years, there seems to be no stopping ebooks from becoming the preferred method of reading. Because of this, signing with a legacy publisher to get a dwindling audience, by giving up getting 70% royalties from a growing audience, is a very bad idea.

        If Locke could sign with a legacy publisher and keep his e-rights, that would be a great move. But no legacy publisher will take those terms, because they know the same thing I know: print is dying and ebooks are the future. 

      • Sorry, Joe, but it is entirely incorrect to say that nobody saw the problems
        with Borders coming 18 months ago. Everybody saw the problems with Borders
        coming 36 months ago, or even longer. It was absolutely obvious. They’ve
        been battling credit problems with publishers (which exacerbated their
        problems) for years. B&N is a much stronger and better-managed company; it
        has a real digital proposition; and it isn’t up to its eyeballs in debt.

        You’re right that no publisher is going to give Locke a deal without his
        e-rights and they aren’t even going to make a deal giving him better ebook
        royalties. Even so, I think there are deals to be offered that will make
        sense to both sides, particularly if he can keep his Creed and western
        series as they are. (Of course, he’s giving up print opportunities for both,
        which is costing him money but he *is* keeping all the digital.)

        Maybe no deal will be offered. Maybe there’s no deal that Locke would
        accept. But I keep coming back to the fact that his books and his marketing
        ought to add up to a lot more than $35,000 a book. Maybe should be worth 10
        times that! Will he get to 10 times that over time? Maybe. But how much


      • Joekonrath

        Everybody saw the problems with Borders
        coming 36 months ago, or even longer.

        Credit problems aren’t the reason Borders is closing. Ebooks are the reason Borders is closing. And 36 months ago, ebooks were a non-issue.

        Ebooks are also the reason B&N is surviving. I’ve heard from a B&N manager that they’re selling dozens of Nooks a day.  I still don’t beleive that will be enough to support their brick and mortar stores. And 18 months is a good a guess as any when the house of cards will collapse, especially seeing how quickly the last 18 months have changed the game.

        But I keep coming back to the fact that his books and his marketing
        ought to add up to a lot more than $35,000 a book.

        That’s analogue thinking, Mike. 🙂

        Of course his ebooks are worth more than $35k each. They made $35k each in just 5 months. Ebooks are forever. Maybe they’ll makes 10x that in five years, or ten years, or twenty years. That’s not the point.

        The point is, if he got $350k from a publisher, once he earned out (and it would take considerably longer, because they’ll price it too high) he’ll only make 25% per sale.

        On his own, once he earns $350k, he’ll continue to make 70%.

        It’s not a question of if it will happen, but when it will happen.

        Would you give away a million dollars ten years from now for $150k today? I just pulled those numbers out of a hat, but the principle is sound. Giving up royalty percentages for an advance is flat out silly (esp. at 25% vs. 70%), even if there are a few years left of print being viable.

        Enjoying the debate, BTW. Always fun discussing stuff with you.

      • I was speaking in Italy when the Borders bankruptcy started to bite in early
        February. I was asked if their financial catastrophe was due to ebooks. I
        said “when the flu hits town, the old and sick die first.” Yes, ebooks are
        the flu, but Borders was a very ill patient just waiting for the next
        problem to make them terminal. And the main cause of their problem wasn’t
        the switch to ebooks any more than it was the switch to online purchasing.
        They ran a very weak operation; their supply chain, putting the books into
        the stores, was horribly inefficient.

        Your notion of how much books will sell ten years from now is highly
        speculative, Joe. I’d say that if an author can make 3 or 4 times as much
        money in the next couple of years one way than another, it would be wise to
        take it!


      • Joekonrath

        Ebooks aren’t just a flu. They’re a superbug.

        When a media technology becomes widely adopted, it decimates previous technologies. There are no more 8 tracks or VHS tapes.

        MP3s haven’t wiped out CDs, because CDs can be ripped to MP3s.

        Print books can’t be ripped to ereaders. Their growth, and print’s demise, will only continue. Once print is a fraction of booksales, there will be no need for brick and mortar stores.

        I think it is likely that could happen with 18 months. You’ve seen how quickly ebooks have become dominant. You can guess what this holiday season will be like for ebooks.

        You’ve also seen the demise of chain record stores and video stores. Why could you recommend anyone getting into bed with a ssytem doomed for extinction?

        I’ve been watching my print sales for ten years, and my ebook sales for 28 months. The difference in royalties is extreme. I have eight books still published by legacy houses. By my calculations, if I had those rights, I’d be making an extra $200,000 a year from those properties. Do I wish I had them back? Hell, yes. Would it have been worth it to me to have made 4 times as much ten years ago, so I can take the bath I’m taking now? No way. If I could give back every royalty I’d ever made and have those books back under my control, I’d do it (and we’re talking upwards of half a million dollars.)

        Ebooks will be around ten years from now. They might be in a a completely new format, but that doesn’t matter. Digital is the future, and whoever holds the rights to IPs will make the money.

        Selling your IP to a legacy publisher for a big advance will be harmful in the long run.

      • Joe, if you think bookstores — or book purchasing in brick stores — will
        collapse in 18 months, then you’re definitely pursuing the right strategy.

        I don’t. We’ll see.

        In the long run, we’re pretty much in synch. But if timing isn’t everything
        in life, it sure is qute a lot!


      • Matt D.

        What a treat to read this back and forth between Mike and Joe.  Okay, the collapse of print may not be in 18 months, but 24, 36?  The fact is it is coming.  Nothing can stop it.  I just finished listening to the audiobook “The Speed of Sound” by Scott Eyman about the movie industry’s transformation from silent films to talkies.  It did not happen overnight after “The Jazz Singer.”  Over a year later major studio executives were still calling talkies a fad.  Joe is like a silent actor who saw “The Jazz Singer” and the next morning hired a voice coach and started taking elocution lessons.  Silent movies went from a huge robust global business to being obsolete within three years.  It wasn’t because silent movies were lacking in quality, in fact by 1927 they were reached an aesthetic pinnacle.

        But technical innovations that present a better alternative for the consumer (in price, convenience and the immersiveness of the experience) will always be the hammer that busts the business status quo and eBooks are just the latest example of that.

        And there is one point Joe has that you must concede, Mike.  In the long run, direct revenue will beat fees/royalties in the vast majority of cases.  The only way an author wins with a legacy publisher is if she/he commands a large advance and the book turns out to be a dog.  Because eBooks do not go out of print, and as long as there is a distribution mechanism in place, the “long tail” will work to the self-publishing author’s advantage.  Revenue needs to be measured in terms of decades, not months.  I don’t care how much Amanda Hocking got from her publisher, if she self-published and the book was a success she would have made way *more* profit in the long run.

        But of coures we live in a society of instant gratification, so it is not a surprise to see overnight sensations grab for the short money.  Let’s see how Amanda Hocking is selling her books five years from now…

      • I really loved your ping pong argument, you and Joe Konrath. Great! And, as an observer, all I can say is that, in a way you’re both right.

        Yes, there’s always an element of chance, and that’s never properly factored in in anyone’s success.

        Yes, brick bookstores are battered by the e-book tsunami in the US – but it’s a little like Japan’s: it doesn’t mean bookstores with actual physical shelves will disappear overnight. On the contrary, there is an increasing concern among the Internet savvy that the virtual Internet world would benefit from roots in the physical world if the objective is to have (and maintain) a strong presence.

        What do I mean by that? Simply this: Barnes & Noble (if they are at all well-managed and they are) will never become an entirely on-line bookstore à la Amazon. That would be foolish. Because they know that there is a knock-on effect from the real world into the virtual and vice-versa (there are also successful bookstores in Germany that play on both levels).

        And I think Mike, that what you’re suggesting to John Locke that he should do is not to cut himself off from the opportunity to play on two levels (the virtual and the real) because of the said knock-on effect (it works both ways, by the way…)

        Also another thing has been left out of your discussion: you both seem to assume that legacy publishers haven’t learned anything from what’s happened and is happening to them because of the digital revolution. Some perhaps aren’t looking at the changed reality confronting them, but I bet other do. Surely there’s some “traditional publisher” out there willing to stray from the “traditional route” and – yes, why not? – give a better deal to writers on their ebooks, like (1) let them decide on their price and (2) take a smaller cut on their rights (like Smashwords, for example). At that point, the “gatekeeper role” and brand-building role of big publishers kicks in, and the likes of Locke would made tons of money in both the e-book and hard-cover/paperback markets…

        And one last (short) point: while Konrath is right and luck plays a role in success, and so does marketing, in the end, a book is successful for 2 reasons only. One: it’s got to be a “good story”. Two: it has to hit the “zeitgeist”. At this point in time, people love vampires – hence Amanda Hocking’s success. People love fast-paced, hard-punching thrillers – hence Joe Konrath and John Locke’s success. In all these cases, it’s superb entertainment. What baffles me is why publishers don’t undertake some serious market research among their readers to figure out what would sell next. After all, they’ve got the  means indies do not, so why not use them?

      • I enjoyed this point/counterpoint very much — it illustrates a lot about the divide separating an author’s head (Mike Shatzkin’s POV) from an author’s heart (Joe Konrath’s POV).

        When I read the recent profile of Amanda Hocking in the NY Times I came away with the sense that Hocking’s deal with St. Martin’s may have been driven as much by her heart as by her head.  The head part is clear: $2 million for 4 books.  But her need to see her books on sale in Wal-Mart, while it, too, may have been for financial reasons, also speaks to an author’s wish to *see* her works on display — where they can be discovered the old-fashioned way, by walking up and down the aisles.  (And is there any doubt Hocking wanted to be able to admire her work on her own bookshelf and perhaps sign copies for friends and fans?)

        I gather Mr. Konrath has enjoyed those authorial privileges and found them wanting compared with being in total control of his books from concept to release.  I’ve never published a book, so I take it on faith that his disgust with the financial limitations of legacy publishing is genuine and heartfelt.

        However, as someone who worked at Barnes & for most of the last decade (I was laid off this past January) I can assure him that Mike Shatzkin is right about Borders.  I and everyone else I knew at B&N had spent at least the last 3 years waiting for what’s finally happening now.  The bookseller seemed to defy the laws of market gravity.

        Aside: Recently I had drinks with a former colleague who now works at a Big 6 publisher, and he told me that this past holiday season his house turned away reorders from Borders’ Waldenbooks unit *not* because of the bookseller’s financial woes but because Borders had never bothered to tie Waldenbooks into its inventory systems.  In other words, this publisher had supplied Borders with plenty of units for the holidays but Waldenbooks, which Borders had owned for well over a decade, couldn’t shop any of it; after all these years Borders’ IT and data people still hadn’t integrated Waldenbooks’ backend inventory systems into the parent company’s.  For me it was all I needed to know about Borders’ incompetent senior management and their priorities.

        As for B&N, the superstores you see today will surely look quite different in another 3 to 5 years.  There are bound to be fewer of them, naturally, and those that are left, aside from devoting more floor space to selling future iterations of the Nook, will likely also devote more space to the nonbook items (toys, games, home & gift items, etc.) that have proliferated in recent years on Barnes &

        I fully acknowledge the “creative destruction” the ebook revolution has brought about and will continue to bring about for the next generation.  But I think Mike Shatzkin’s point is that self-published authors like John Locke still have plenty of time to cash in with legacy publishers the way Amanda Hocking has.  However, it’s clear a decision like this one is emotionally charged, and Locke may feel about it the way Konrath clearly does.

      • Loving this discussion. Note to both… ebooks did note strike the death knell for bookstores, Amazon did. Not convinced? I invite your attention to both Google and Amazon’s recent addition of self, e-publishing divisions and the hiring and acquiring of former top traditional pub house executives/properties. 
        Amazon has a policy of not entering into an arena that does not show very fast multi-billion dollar promise. And this recent move puts them into competition with their own suppliers. I guarantee you, there were some interesting conversations around Amazon creating their own publishing division. One must look to the way Amazon is organized, how employees are empowered and how deep their research goes to understand this venture was not done lightly and the global implications to publishing considered..Things change. The instrument of change this time is digital. Certainly, it is easy to find fault with Border’s model (their customer service sucked, for instance and they hired non-readers to sell books!) and lack of value add, but the fragility of a company’s bottom line is exacerbated by shape changers. And Amazon be dat! .Lest we forget, Amazon popularized the ebook reader. Think they had that predictive crystal ball Locke claims to be missing? Did Amazon know ereaders needed ebooks? Hmmm. And did their venture with LuLu teach them anything? Hmmm. Amazon knows how to research, analyze and act. So long Borders…

      • Thanks for the addition to the conversation. I don’t disagree that the
        combination of their own serial incompetence and the movement to online
        purchasing did more damage to Borders than ebooks. They all contributed.
        Overall conditions have not developed favorably for the business equity
        Borders had 15 years ago, but they did a lot over the years to make matters

        I agree that Amazon is very smart and analytical, but the progression that
        led to Larry Kirshbaum’s appointment started a very long time ago and has
        inevitability to it as much as calculation. Amazon is an Internet company in
        its DNA and with that comes a nose for opportunities to disintermediate to
        one’s advantage.


      • The point is, Mike, Amazon has carefully plotted becoming the publishing world’s T-Rex. There are no accidents at Amazon and long term thinking/planning is also part of their DNA. LuLu was not so much a service for publishing books so much as a think tank for refining future Amazon offerings. 

        Amazon makes a significant part of their revenue from selling their services and templates. Look to the future when most digital publishers use the Amazon Engine and cloud services as their infrastructure. There may well be a massive long term play modeled after their current money making efforts; they become the backbone service provider for their competition and those who want fast entry to a lucrative market. [Think Target and JC Penny, for example. Their web based business was and may still be, based completely on and at Amazon. [People discount Amazon as simply being an on-line retailer. Nothing could be further from the truth. Amazon is an IT house and provides services in so many arenas it is hard for an outsider to define. If you take all the retail $$ away from Amazon, they are still in the Fortune 100.  

        Many name-brand retailers were quick to recognize the importance of on-line sales and unable to make it happen. Hence, Amazon’s business model thrived. My guess is Amazon will be the ‘man behind the curtain’ for most of the epub world for a long time to come. And yes, ‘the man behind the curtain’ IS a T-rex.

      • On your overall point — that Amazon is a brilliant company and does many
        remarkable things leveraging its infrastructure — there is no dispute.

        However, I think you’re mixing CreateSpace (Amazon’s self-publishing
        platform) up with Lulu, which is a competitor in that business. And as
        publishers move to the cloud, they will have alternatives to Amazon to get
        them there. I think the current mood of the biggest publishers would be to
        prefer *any* other cloud provider to Amazon.

        Amazon has extraordinary strengths, mostly rooted in its customer-focus. The
        strongest cards to play in the future are the trust, marketing access, and
        transactional relationships with real, live customers. They’ve got them. But
        they’re not the ones who do, and they, most of all (because they are so
        smart), are aware of that.

        What you need to remember before you declare victory for Amazon is that the
        part of the business where their advantages are unassailable (delivery of
        physical goods) is shrinking and the part of the business where their market
        share is under assault (digital delivery of books and other content) is
        growing. I’d never bet against them or sell them short but the path to the
        future is still complicated and not assured.


      • Mia Culpa on the Lulu mistake. Thanks. Re: T-Rex of epubs, it is the template for efficient epub creation and dissemination, not just the cloud that Amazon will offer… Betting. In other words, quick and tried/true entry to that world. Once there is a visible need, many vendors and service providers will crawl out of the woodwork, perhaps even the traditional pub houses will avail themselves to the Amazon template rather than reinvent the wheel. For example, Starbucks may want to add a service for authors and using Amazon’s template would facilitate jumping into the fray quickly with little IT overhead and no time off task for their main business. 
        Let’s wait to see. Continue this conversation with real data in 12 months? Plus, Don’t overlook Google’s efforts. They already have over 150,000 titles and very serious about digital documents. One has to examine executive hiring and search activities to glean direction of the big players. And I do wonder what Microsoft has up its sleeves. Don’t you?

      • Well, exactly. Google can’t be discounted. Right now. Microsoft can’t be
        discounted, prospectively. You’re going to see platform help available from
        Kobo shortly and a lot of other players would rather not strengthen Amazon,
        not just in the book business. And we didn’t mention Apple.

        Publishers and authors will have plenty of partners to choose from. Their
        best strategy has always been to work with all of them. I don’t think Amazon
        will be able to persuade many of them otherwise.


      • Couldn’t agree more. I am curious about your anti-amazon comments. I am naive about any author related issues. Google, on the other hand, I know a fair bit about. Rumors are they have stolen many author’s works and are in litigation over how they acquire IP. Rumors and opinions. Our discussions are all about how authors will have more choices in the future. And that’s a good thing.  The snake in the closet is how easily our work might be stolen. I am not flapping wings here. I had two digital books stolen by three sites [that I know of, there may be more and other authors tell me similar tales of woe] who give them away free with subscription to their download tools sites. My attorney tells me there is little I can do to stop them or prevent the larceny. I can only imagine that such thievery will grow once digital becomes our common media. But, that’s another topic. 

      • I don’t mean any comments to be “anti-Amazon.” I have great respect for them
        and what they do and I know of no instance where they have been anything but
        aboveboard. But they are trying to sell the idea that being exclusively on
        the Kindle platform is a good strategy for some authors.

        I think you may be referring to the Google ebooks lawsuit and settlement
        conversations, but I think your characterization of the issues is unfair.
        There were legitimate questions about fair use and, frankly, what’s good for
        authors and content, that created a lawsuit. I think what Google has done
        and is doing is great for the industry and for authors, for many reasons.

        But that’s really a topic for another time.


      • What best seller list are you referring? And how many sales does it take to get on that? Being on a list doesn’t mean anything. Oh, and what about the Amazon best seller list- it’s typically filled with Indie authors. That’s based on actual sales, not a list like the NYT that can and is gamed.

      • The Amazon bestseller list *contains* indie authors but it is not *filled* with
        indie authors. And the dice are totally loaded in their favor because their
        books are 10% or less the price of the branded books. In the past,
        bestseller lists were divided by price because they were divided by print
        format — hardcover, trade paper, mass market. But now we have 99 cent books
        and $14.99 books “competing” for the same list. It’s crazy and, in my
        opinion, not valid. Nonetheless, there are *lots* of more expensive books on
        the ebook bestseller lists.


    • Russ

      100% disagree with then so called “luck” factor. This is utter nonsense. Joe, you, Locke, Hocking and others simply worked harder than anyone else. You worked on your craft, you put in the time at the keyboard, you understood how to market.

      Think of it this way, is a pro golfer lucky or do they practice and do other things to win?Do they depend on luck to be successful? Of course not. 

      Why do writers seem to think luck has some mysterious value? It is worthless to think this way and will only drive you nuts to think you have to be lucky to be successful.

      I believe luck is when hard work meets opportunity.

    • Rick

      Thats really interesting that you made as much sales as loche with 1/4 of the sales. That’s the same thing am trying to do with my books Crowd Funding Explosion, and How to Stop Smoking today, I have also written and cd-rom with frank luna called How to sell your art, not sell out. Also available on Amazon.

  • Nothing I can

  • dirtywhitecandy Roz Morris

    Interesting points. There's an argument you're missing, though – another group of authors who effectively get pushed into self-publishing.
    They are those of us who are agented and whose books are enjoyed by commissioning editors – and then rejected by marketing because they're not supermarket titles.
    I have an agent (two, in fact) and I write unusual fiction with a decidedly literary bent. I have a novel that has been agented to the hilt and has had rejections like this: 'we really enjoyed it but we don't think marketing will'. And 'what a fascinating little novel, if it was more like a conventional thriller we'd take it'. These are books that readers will enjoy – but the booksellers – who publishers sell to – won't find viable.
    My agent says he's had this happen more than 10 times in the last few years.
    What are these authors to do? Self-publishing is their only option.
    It's not that we are in a rush. Our books have already served their time, earned their agents, even delighted discerning readers who see the very best on offer. What else do we have left?
    As to your other point about agent imprints, I think they need to go further. As all agents now have books that, like the ones I've talked about, are great reads but won't convince a marketing department, I feel they should start Discovery imprints. These would be ebooks of the new authors they believe in passionately, put out under a list in the hope of attracting readers directly.
    I wrote about it here… http://nailyournovel.wordpress

    • Roz, the “discovery” imprints idea is what I was trying to suggest the

      agents' ebook arms might turn into, at least in part. But that makes Locke's

      how-to book and the techniques he teaches so much more important. The

      “discovery” the publishers are looking for is for marketing and audience

      they didn't know about; they can make their decisions about “quality” just

      as well from a manuscript as from an ebook.

      But when an editor is frustrated by marketing and sales reluctance, being

      able to point to self-publishing success might be an antidote. But just

      “putting it out there” won't do it.


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  • Actually, it was Amazon’s algorithms that sold a million copies. Say what you want about marketing plans, and surely John’s smart marketing stimulated a forward tide, but nothing sells like sales. I doubt those algorithms would have been triggered by a major publisher without tremendous marketing support and even Amazon co-op. Look at the dramatic difference between the Kindle Top 100 and the NYT bestseller list.

    And, it would take at least seven years and probably 10 for John Locke to have published 10 books in New York. Would you want to bet a writing career on what is happening with bookstores in 2020? I think you are very insightful on traditional publishing and I always enjoy your posts,, but until you’ve been wallowing in these muddy, bloody trenches as a writer, you don’t know how lucky we have it to be able to sell 99 cent or $2.99 ebooks and stick some coins in our pockets EVERY MONTH instead of hoping, praying, and kissing rings so we maybe get anointed with a big payday. And I find it faintly morally repulsive that industry people come in and sweep writers off their feet after the writer has done the hard work of proving worthy, finding an audience, and, yes, getting lucky. (Not that I blame a writer for taking any deal, just that it’s yet more proof NY has no more of an idea what readers want than the average reader has–all they know is what each other wants. Not to knock anyone, because we all have it tough, but it’s not alchemy).

    Indie is just a different roulette wheel from the query-go-round. But how many writers in the history of ever will make $350,000 in a career?

    • Scott, the question for John Locke (and for publishers) is what is the best
      course of action for each going forward. And I think the best course for
      both is a new series done the still-commercial way.

      The Amazon bestseller list still consists mostly of branded books at higher
      prices, not self-published books at low prices.

      And whatever your feelings about it, publishers have a big engine to put
      behind content when they choose to. It may offend you in some way that they
      discover something because of its demonstrated commercial appeal rather than
      by seeing its intrinsic value in a manuscript, but it happens all the time
      in many ways. Locke, having worked so hard to accomplish what he has,
      shouldn’t feel the least bit embarrassed about getting help to cash in

      That said, more frequent payment of royalties and enabling authors to do
      books more often are things I think the big publishers will find it
      worthwhile to take on board before long. In fact, the more frequent
      publishing thing already happens. James Patterson puts out new books all the
      time; I don’t know what the schedule is, but it is a lot more than once a


  • Anonymous

    I think your prediction sounds accurate. Nothing stopping John from exploring both options 🙂

    I think that’s what the new publishing world will ultimately shape up to be: professional authors who will sell their work through both channels (self-publish the work they believe in but publishers and agents don’t think there is a market AND trad publish work the publishers and agents believe in or want to gamble on). 

  • Jennyfrost

    Mike, you didn’t mention that Locke’s nonfiction book is $4.99. I find that very interesting. He obviously has assessed a higher value to its content. I am looking forward to reading it. I am not sure that I would buy another Locke at $9.99. Subjectively, I thought he could use an editor. But, I would happily pay $2.99 or $3.99 for more of his novels. He is leaving money on the table, with intent, in his current scenario. I do think ultimately a mix of self and publishing with an established house is going to be a fascinating and compelling way for authors to market themselves.

    • Yes, I probably should have mentioned the $4.99 ticket on the “how-to”.
      Locke himself spends some considerable time outlining how he makes his
      pricing decisions.

      You’re a more acute reader than I am and no doubt you’re right he could
      benefit from editing. Of course, if he had a major house deal, he’d get it.


  • Mike —

    I just clicked your link to Locke’s book on Amazon and I’m surprised you didn’t bother mentioning that it’s $4.99!  The first customer review also observes that it’s “only 65-pages long”, so it looks as if, in this case anyway, Locke is willing to skip his adherence to the magical 99 cent price point — obviously because he feels his loyal readers are far from the target audience for his marketing message.  Anyway, $4.99 for 65 pages may not be rapacious, but it doesn’t sound exactly magnanimous, either.

    • Anonymous

      Actually, his pricing has a method to the madness.  He figures out his target market and what he thinks they’ll pay—and bears the market size in account.

      Even for novels, he says that everyone has to figure out their own pricing.  Personally, I suspect that he’d be better off leaving “Saving Rachel” (his recommended starting point) at $0.99 and raising the prices for the rest, but what do I know?

      • I think he has a feeling of obligation to his core audience. I think the
        right strategy would be to put each book out at 99 cents for the first 2 or
        4 weeks and to tell everybody that’s his policy and then to raise the price
        to $2.99 for income after that. So his core audience would be alerted and
        could continue to get him cheap but others coming in because they’ve heard
        about him would pay more.

        It will be interesting to see if he experiments with price on the fiction or


  • I might be a little slow, but I didn’t understand this post. Why exactly would he be better off w/ a publisher? Because a publisher could get a away charging more? Because a publisher can market better?

    If that’s true, then I’m not buying it. How many trad pubbed authors have sold a million books in the last 5 months? How many trad pubbed authors sold a million books in their first year of writing? 

    So sure, he “could” have made more money selling higher, but that’s a big fat “IF”. Not only that, he could have made more money on less sales, but it’s all about the word of mouth also. The more people have his book in their hands, the more opportunity there is for them to talk about it. Dollars is not the only currency involved in business, word of mouth has a ton of value.

    Now, I doubt he would have cleared a million copies had the book been priced at trad pub rates ($10). So, he made 35c per book, compared to 2.50 per sale. Yes, when you look at the math that way, he’s an idiot, but the question remains even at the 2.50 per book, would he have made 350K? Nobody knows.  

    Also, like you pointed out, it takes a while to get your book out there- generally 2 years or more. At the rate he’s going, that’s about $1.4 million in lost sales. Exactly what would he have gained w/ a pub? 

    He has money, he has ALL of his rights, and he’s done quite well building an audience, so I really fail to see where he made any mistakes. Yes it’s possible he could make more, but I really doubt a publisher is going to get him more that what he’s doing on his own. 

    The other thing is, unless you have built an audience like Locke or Hocking, a publisher, if they were to sign you, will not give you the same support. It will still be up to you to market and do all of the other stuff you’re already doing. Sure you may get access to things you don’t have now, but will that really make a difference? Maybe, maybe not. 

    Sorry for the long rant, numbers tell what ever story you want them too. It’s time we moved past trad vs. indie, 99c vs. more and focus on building our audiences and giving them what they need. Every author is different, just like the stories they tell. How they market to that audience is just as different. Numbers only tell part of the story.

    • Uh, Phil. I wasn’t saying he shouldn’t have done what he did.

      I am saying that having done what he did, he should now consider doing the
      same thing with the other business model and yes, because the publisher can
      get more money for the ebooks, get print sales he can’t touch which in and
      of themselves provide additional marketing he can’t do, that he should have
      a publisher-series operating alongside of these.

      Do a deal like Amanda Hocking just did. She also made no mistake starting


      • Why should he? That’s the part I’m not getting? So he can charge more? Just because a publisher WILL charge more, doesn’t mean he CAN charge more. It doesn’t mean that he will make more money because of the higher price. He might, but why mess with something that is working for him. 

        You suggest that publishers read his book and use it. If what he did is so good, again, why does he need a pub? Money/Advance? I think he’s got that covered, he can invest in his book. 

        Hocking didn’t NEED the deal, she wanted it. I’d bet that if she wanted (and Locke could probably do this too) call up B&N and get her titles in store. The idea that a publisher is this magical being that is the only path to success (which is defined how exactly?) is ludicrous.

        Name 5 mid-list trad pubbed authors that did as well as Locke (in sales and income). What is this magic thing publishers have that self pubbers don’t? I think it’s been proved many times over that success (sales/income) can be reached w/out a publisher. That being in a book store doesn’t give you the added advantage that it once did. 

        Give me something concrete that a publisher can offer Locke. Something that doesn’t play into a “what if” game. 

  • Kate Madison

    Fascinating stuff between you and Konrath.  And there might be a middle ground between where y’all stand which is if Locke signed a cash up front heavy deal that included a decent royalty after earn out.  Coming from a self pub point of view, even 50% wouldn’t seem so bad.  Would the big 6(7) ever sign a contract like that? 

    But then I read Scott’s post and remember that yes, control of the money is HUGE.  So maybe add to that contract that all moneys go through Locke and he has to pay out to the publishers– isn’t that what Rowling is doing now? Would a publisher agree to this for a less popular author?  They might have to if the thousands of lawsuits and possibly even criminal charges come to light in the next few years.  No author (except the most desperate) will trust the trad publishers, anymore.  

    Anyway, good stuff.  Thanks.
    Kate Madison

    • Kate, I don’t think the big publishers will go for what you say: 50% or a
      different flow of the money. But I still think the math says Locke could
      make more money doing his marketing magic with one of their standard deals.


  • Jack Foehammer

    It doesn’t matter how much time it would take for Locke’s current work to make 10 times what it’s made already, because his ebooks will be working for him FOREVER.  He’s not handicapped by a finite print run, so the quick hit of big sales at the time of release is not needed.  He does not have to worry about being dropped by his publisher for lack of sales of that finite print run that they’ve heavily invested in.  And because his ebooks will always be available, his new material will continually drive sales of his old material as his audience grows.

    The point is, the digital age of publishing is a marathon rather than a sprint..

  • Pturner108

    Seems to me that way too much time, ink, and keystrokes are being spent on aberrant cases of success (and failure). The old bell-curve logic applies: throw out the highest and lowest statistical cases as they always tend to skew results towards incorrect conclusions. 

    • Sorta depends on what you’re looking at the cases *for*. If you looked at
      Locke because he sells so many and wondered if there was some explanation
      for his success, it turns out that you’d find (thanks to his “how to” book)
      there is a real marketing method there. Now, I’m not saying there aren’t
      people with middling results who aren’t also marketing wizards but who
      aren’t selling because they can’t write or they’re just unlucky or whatever.
      But there’s nothing illogical about looking at the success outliers to see
      if you can glean any helpful clues.

      And if you’re a publisher looking for somebody to invest money in, there’s a
      lot of logic to examining somebody that has demonstrated audiences like
      their work but who is operating at a commercial level that suggests you
      could earn them more money by stepping them up to the big leagues.


      • Pturner108

        Maybe so, but my gut tells me more money is made on the grunt work than on pixie dust.

      • I am not sure what, if anything I have written or said or that Locke has
        said would make you think we wouldn’t say the same thing. His marketing
        advice is *all about* grunt work!


      • Pturner108

        Yes, but a lot of authors do the same sort of grunt work. Having actually been in publishing I can tell you for sure that luck is an essential ingredient to success. So extreme success isn’t much of a guide to what “works”–that lies in the mid-list and often unheralded success of what tends to work in general not in aberrant cases like Locke. Put another way, you’re better off studying the boring middle to discover the true dynamics than putting too much emphasis on the exceptions, which are subject to all sorts of vagaries. No?

      • You apparently haven’t read Locke’s how-to book.

        It isn’t just about the grunt work. The grunt work is “necessary, but not
        sufficient.” It’s about the system. He’s figured a lot out. Read him. Try it
        his way. I’ll bet you’ll achieve more success.


      • Pturner108

        So, reading Locke’s book is a prerequisite to commenting on your blog or having something meaningful to contribute? Mmmmmm.

      • If you don’t like the feedback, there are a million other blogs to comment


      • Pturner108

        Oh, I thought it was a fair question. I do “like” your feedback but does that mean I have to agree with it? Are you giving me the boot. Glad to move on.

      • Nah. I don’t give boots. There’s one person blacklisted from posting on this
        blog. I’ve done hundreds of posts and handled thousands of comments in the
        2-1/2 years I’ve been doing it. I think one other commenter didn’t like my
        comebacks and quit. Other than that, people only disappear because they’re


      • Pturner108

        Nah. I’m not bored. I’d rather return to my point, which is, simply, “exceptions do not prove a rule.”. The vast majority of published books do not lend themselves to the dynamics ruling John Locke et. al. And it’s always best to focus on the broad middle than the outliers, no? Agree/Disagree?

  • I’m surprised nobody mentioned the potential buyout of B&N by Liberty Media or other hostile. Second, the Nook is the target, not the bricks. Liberty has plenty of screens for marketing. Any other hostile is looking at the same thing.

    And finally, Joe is about right on the timing with eBooks making print obsolete in 18-24 months: Legacy publishers must move fast (not their strong point) or vanish. -Steve

    • You’re welcome to your opinion that print in stores will collapse in 18-24
      months. I don’t share it. I think the world will have to figure out a few
      more things about delivering the illustrated book on devices before that can
      begin to happen.

      But I would predict that thinking about how to render books more complex
      than straight text well on screens will begin in earnest next year.


      • ePub 3 delivers illustrated & animated today, good enough? Many of us are digging in deep here; here’s an early example running on capable hardware (html 5, color even, etc.):

        The draft spec has been out for months, proposed spec released 4 days ago. This is how JK Rowling and Sony will deliver a “rich” experience; if Amazon is smart, on the new Kindle in August. She did the math, wants Overdrive doing the eStore lifting.

        For Bricks and Legacy publishers to survive, they need to have books as gift cards; ePub 3, no DRM, price based on reality, not print edition. I believe they won’t move fast enough to survive.

      • There’s a *big** *gap between the technology enabling something and an
        inventory of potential products being onstream that employ it. And the
        conversion from the print to digital for illustrated books will be nowhere
        near as straightforward as it is for straight text.


      • As you know, in a QuarkXpress world, you’d be perfectly correct about print to digital being “hard”. In an O’Reilly TOC world, there are dozens of tools running today because at it’s very core, ePub 3 is HTML 5. Have you talked to Pete Meyers, do you know about Aquafadas, Active Reader or Moglue?

        So what you’re believing is text based (fiction & the like) are eBook friendly now and your big contention is Illustrated & Coffee Table books? Print = analog and as a geek, I can assure you, by the end of summer, it’ll be trivial to create a *gorgeous* eBook that surpasses the print experience. Just like the example, it can be hand coded the hard way today. Print will be left for collector’s editions.

        The real question and challenge of marketplace penetration is how many people will have the hardware to view these creations in 18-24 months. Today’s Kindle won’t. JK Rowling could push Amazon into making this happen. Android tablets, including Color Nook and Apple are there now. The problem is not on the content creation side; at least from the chair of a forward viewing publisher.

      • It wasn’t a big deal to make a straight text ebook in 2002. But the
        inventory of available titles took a long time to grow, partly because the
        backlist is deep and those books don’t have modern files. In fact, in many
        case, the publishers don’t have all the files and don’t know where all the
        files are. There are also non-trivial rights issues with illustrated
        material that will be a barrier to conversion.

        This isn’t just about what the technology can do.

        Yes, I know Pete Meyers. I’ve had the pleasure of working with him on
        several projects.


  • The question at the end of your thread with Konrath is whether Locke could extract enough money/brand-building value out of the legacy platform to compensate him for the loss of the digital rights. 

    I think Konrath’s answer is right. But you’re more right. 

    Konrath’s right that Locke doesn’t need a legacy deal. He’ll keep earning for years and the accumulated revenue will (mostly) outstrip any short-term gains.

    You’re right that Locke could easily knock out a new series and take advantage of the legacy platform to ramp up both his profit and sales. 

    But you’re MORE right given that the real value of legacy is brand building. Making Locke into a household name, possibly globally, is what’s at stake.

    Konrath is thinking like a retail marketer:  What are my sales/profits/projections? Ironically, you’re thinking like a brand marketer. How do I link someone to an entire category?

    As the ebook market becomes supersaturated, Locke is gambling that his current trajectory will keep his name above the fold; he’ll become the Hiaasen of the ebook era. Possibly. But wouldn’t a side deal with legacy actually cement that? So long as his output remains steady, the downside seems trivial compared to the upside.

  • I couldn’t agree more Mark, but only for those in Hocking, Konrath, Locke type brand building positions today. They must also start this right away if the opportunity fits them. I fully believe Legacy will have a difficult time in the near future as their paper outlets disappear, quarterly Wall Street demands, etc.

    There’s at least one music label CEO that *still* believes CD sales will return. Paper publishers are worse at progress. IMO, it’s going to be a blood bath, and the few forward thinking CEOs have already started to bail out. Hence the evil ones doing sneaky IP grabbing to hold on longer.

  • Tim Brandhorst

    Mike, one factor you didn’t mention is the very short length of Locke’s books. Saving Rachel, which has been near the top of the Kindle bestseller list for several months, is something like 3500 sentences (actually, 3315 sentences, or so my Kindle tells me)–so, generously, no more than 35,000 or 40,000 words. Legacy publishers wouldn’t have been interested because, by the usual standards, it’s only half a book at best.

    You’ve posted before about the rise of paperbacks decades ago and how some new authors were able to figure out how to write perfectly for that new medium. I think you’re exactly right–that’s what’s going on with Locke. He’s written perfect ninety-nine cent stories. They wouldn’t work at a higher price; they wouldn’t work in print at 50-60 pages. But they don’t have to, because now there’s a new market and medium created by a new means of distribution.

  • Teresa R. Funke

    What an interesting post. As someone who has been involved in this industry as a professional writer for twenty years, I’ve got a lot of experience to draw on. The numbers above are just that, numbers. They can be viewed from all sides. For example, to say that he would make more money if he had a traditional book deal and his books in stores is to forget that he could very easily establish a print version of his book on his own using a service like Lightening Source, which is owned by Ingram, and any bookstore in the country could then order and stock his books. He doesn’t need a traditional publisher to make money off of his print version. It’s also interesting to note that if he did go with a traditional publisher, they might push his books for a few months, but if the books didn’t sell in high numbers, the bookstores would return the books and the publisher woudl suspend its marketing efforts.  Banking on hardcover sales is also not the most practical way anymore. With so many options now, people are strarting to balk at  the idea of paying $24 for hardcover and would seriously balk at spending that much on such a short book. I successfully self-published all five of my books starting in 2002, back when there was still a huge stigma for self-publishing fiction. Over the past few years, I’ve seen many of my traditionally published friends grow more and more frustrated with their publishing houses. Many of them are now trying to take back their rights so they can self-publishing some of their books. I agree with the comment that it’s about your goals for you book. And in the long run, what’s the best route. Because today’s publishers are short-term thinkers. If your book is doing great, they’ll promote you. If your next book doesn’t do great, they’ll stop promoting you and tie up the book in other ways. In the long run, might it all even out for self-pub and legacy authors?

    • I think we’re still living in a time when a publisher’s ability to put
      multiple copies of a book out in many stores adds to sales everywhere.
      You’re right that he can make his book available through Lightning and it is
      even true that with the publisher disintermediated he’ll make a decent buck
      on each sale, but what stores order one copy at a time in response to demand
      is a small fraction of what can be sold with a real stocking effort. And it
      is also a fraction of the merchandising and discoverability.


  • Hi Mike,  after chewing on your post for a day, if he was given the proper deal (doubtful), absolutely he might make more money. Saving Rachel was his 3rd title, the one he sent into battle. Publishers usually don’t wait this long to cut an author.  Also, if a publisher did a full Monty land grab, what is their marketing plan
    5, 10, 15 years out – or even 50 years out?

    He’s building his brand. Having gone back in his Twitter stream 6+ months, it’s inspiring, personable, approachable. I can now attest, his email response is way beyond that, off the charts charming!  When he does a license deal of Donovan Creed to Hollywood, it’ll be with many digits to the left. IMO, brand control trumps potential short term returns by a wide margin. -Steve

    • Let’s remember that I said “create another series and try it another way.”
      He wouldn’t be giving up any Hollywood rights in any case. Publishers very
      seldom even ask for them.


      • “…Hollywood rights in any case. Publishers very seldom even ask for them.

        The old days, maybe not. However, to survive, they’re actively inserting new language into contracts, even strong arming an addendum for each author to sign:

        And that’s not the worst of it, don’t get me started on the new Agency clauses coming out these days. and are champions of the creative industry, showing authors how to protect themselves from such.

      • You know what? The business is harder all around. And, thanks to all the
        democracy, the competition is going to get tougher and tougher. Any way you
        do it, there’s hard work involved and other people who need to get paid. I
        think self-publishing is really right for some people. I think publishers
        are really right for most people who have the capability to sell substantial
        numbers of books. Not only does nothing work every time, nothing works most
        of the time. The story of most authors, on their own or with a publisher, is
        commercial failure. I have written a bunch of books for a variety of
        publishers and have a self-published one out now and I sure am glad I’ve had
        other ways to pay the rent. But I’ve gotten a variety of benefits from
        authoring them and none of the publishers got rich on them either!


  • In my experience, acquiring an agent has been the most confusing and frustrating part of writing, and that is what led me to self publishing my novels and short stories as ebooks.  To attract an agent, you must write a query that suits his or her definition of a good query, and they all seem to have different ideas. With ebooks, at least I am in the game. I have the feeling that I can at least partly create my own luck. With my own blogs, websites, and social network efforts, I am at least selling some books. If I were still waiting for an agent, I would not be selling any. For now, and thats to the examples of Hocking, Konrath, and Locke, I’m content to keeping trying this new way. Hopefully, I’ll get to the point that I won’t even need an agent!

    • Sounds right to me. The process of getting individual powerful human beings
      to visualize a manuscript or a proposal as a successful book has always been
      an arduous and time-consuming one. Self-publishing can accomplish a lot of
      things: you get your book out, you get some sales, and maybe you even
      generate enough buzz to attract an agent or publisher. I think smart agents
      and publishers will be figuring out how to “mine” the self-publishing stacks
      for writers and projects that could do well with capital and organizational
      muscle behind them.

      In fact, I’ve been learning that Locke has an agent and shopped his work
      looking for a publishing deal before he did what he did. We know Amanda
      Hocking wanted a publisher and then used her self-publishing success to get
      one. This may become a common story, just as people thinking like Godin and
      Eisler (both of whom ended up with Amazon but whose first decision was to
      walk away from traditional publishing) will also become more common. We’re
      in for a chaotic time.


  • In my experience, acquiring an agent has been the most confusing and frustrating part of writing, and that is what led me to self publishing my novels and short stories as ebooks.  To attract an agent, you must write a query that suits his or her definition of a good query, and they all seem to have different ideas. With ebooks, at least I am in the game. I have the feeling that I can at least partly create my own luck. With my own blogs, websites, and social network efforts, I am at least selling some books. If I were still waiting for an agent, I would not be selling any. For now, and thanks to the examples of Hocking, Konrath, and Locke, I’m content to keeping trying this new way. Hopefully, I’ll get to the point that I won’t even need an agent!

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  • To give it a more detailed background, you can check a report I’ve made about top self-published books in Kindle Store in 2011 so far.

    Both Amanda Hocking and John Locke are out of Top 100 in June and self-published books are doing just the same as in January, before the self-publishing hype.

    Both Hocking and Locke generated sales thanks to several books published before. It will be really exciting to see what will happen in the next couple of months.

    • Interesting data. What I infer from it is that there are 99 cent buyers and
      there are regular buyers. The 99 cent buyers move as a herd.


  • Good overview. Two points:

    1. He collects a higher percentage of his sales price and controls the exposure avoiding the specter of remainder table as he gains exposure, and does not have to deal with the typical two year delay in publishing and all the accompanying crazy. He would still have to do his own marketing [on his own dime].2. He won. epublishing never rules out traditional publishing. It is a gateway drug. The publishing houses who court him will offer an order of magnitude better deal to Mr. Locke than he could ever have negotiated as a newbie. He simply worked the system, gained exposure for his work and can now sell a book on how to do it. Keep in mind, however, what you said repeatedly, you like reading his work. That’s one major reason he is successful. I have been given free books by authors as part of their marketing efforts, but that doesn’t mean I want to read or pay for any more of their work. Bottom line to all this great ebook buzz? The book has to be compelling for any of his advice to work.

    • All agreed except for one thing. That was more than 2 points!


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  • I would love to see this point/counter-point between Mike and Joe in an actual article so it would be more readable.  In fact it would be cool of you guys had a regular mini-round table discussion and maybe have guests. 🙂

    • I’m glad you enjoyed it. I’m sure an exchange like that between Joe and me
      will happen again sometime, probably tied to some event or milestone that I
      write about that moves him to comment. But once a month? I dunno…


  • Publishing is in a tailspin and though I don’t believe that traditional publishing will vanish,  change is inevitable. That’s the way of life.
    As an emerging author, it’s overwhelming wading through all the aspects of publishing, particularly when very little of it seems to be standing on solid ground. We all have to carve our own way through the mess–and no matter how you look at it, it is a mess.
    But there is a bright spot in all of this. People still love to read and we would do well to remember that. We can mourn the loss of Border’s,( and I am sorry to see it go) debate electronic over tradtional publishing, stress over all the decisions to be made regarding pricing, marketing and so forth, and point our finger at whoever we want to blame for the chaos. Our primary goal should be to put quality work into our readers hands at a price they can afford and still make a living doing it. Am I being naive? Probably. But I really believe that when the dust settles, those who have kept their eye on that goal, will be the ones left standing. 

    • I agree with the goal, which publishers, authors, and book retailers should
      all share. The phrase “easier said than done” comes to mind. But I
      emphatically agree that people want to read immersive book-length material
      (although bookstores sell an awful lot more than that) and will continue to,
      regardless of the temptations presented by new forms of content enabled by
      digital technology.


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  • Some people just like to retain control themselves even if it means making less money.

    • And there’s nothing in the world wrong with that if it is a conscious choice.


  • DL Greenlee

    Question is would a traditional publisher have picked him up, or would he have a pocketful of rejections instead of the money he has made?

    • I’m not sure I agree that it’s *the* question, but I know the answer.

      He did try to get deals with major publishers and failed. He may have failed because he tried to set unacceptable conditions (he wanted publishers to sell his ebooks for 99 cents.)

      I emphasized that there was nothing wrong with what he did; he did the right thing and he did it smart. The point I wanted to make was that the same books with the same effort would have yielded him more money if he had a major publisher handling them. And I believe now he would be in a position to get one.


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