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.