Mark Wheaton needs absolutely no introduction on CHUD.com, having helped build our reputation and audience both on this site and in our short-lived but excellent MOVIE INSIDER magazine under the name Smilin’ Jack Ruby. The man has gone on to become a successful Hollywood screenwriter (IMDB) and has been self publishing truly terrific novellas, books, short stories, or whatever you want to call them on Kindle. Today he returns to CHUD’s front page with a look at the trials and tribulations of his experiences as a Kindle author. Enjoy! – Nick Nunziata
Learn From My Kindle Fail
By Mark Wheaton
A year ago this week, I uploaded my first horror novella, Last Tuesday, to the Amazon Kindle. I had one hope: that it would still be selling one year later. Nineteen people have downloaded it over the past thirty days including two in the UK where Amazon has just started to sell Kindles.
Last Tuesday’s net haul for the month? $6.65.
Amount of money I put into getting just that one story out there? 54 times that.
Before I start talking about everything I learned over a year of self-publishing Kindle books, let’s just get this out of the way: I have not seen one red cent in profit from my Kindle writing and probably never, ever, ever will. In fact, I have spent money on this venture that I could never hope to recoup. But as I got into this for the sole reason that I enjoy writing (well, can’t stop writing – it’s a fine line) and this was just one more, incredibly accessible outlet, I can’t complain.
Moreover, I fully intend to keep right on losing money with it, type a raft of new stories, continue to check my downloads daily on Amazon’s Digital Text Platform (http://dtp.amazon.com) backend under Reports > Month-to-Date Unit Sales and basically burn down my house in celebration when one person buys all six books at once – netting me a fat $2.10 over one transaction – an action my wife has dubbed “getting into the Mark Wheaton business.”
I do this for a variety of reasons, but it goes back to a pathological desire to write. What Amazon has done with the DTP for people in that same boat is on par with the landmark mid-eighties discovery of crack.
This is how you can get addicted too.
What stops a lot of people from writing that novel that they’ve always wanted to write is length.
Go on the Dorchester Publications/Leisure Books submission guidelines page of their website (http://www.dorchesterpub.com/Dorch/SubmissionGuidlines.cfm and what do you see for horror?
“Finished manuscripts should be 80,000-90,000 words.”
Look around and you’ll see that’s about as iron clad for a new writer as three-act (really five-act) structure in a 105-112 page motion picture screenplay. It’s now closed to fiction submissions, but great Canadian horror publisher ChiZine asked for submissions that were around 85,000 words. It’s what a mass market paperback tends to be.
There’s a story about the truly great crime writer Chester Himes where somebody asked him about his process for writing. He replied that he was given a page count by his editor and he placed the correct amount of blank pages on the left side of his typewriter, started his story and when the stack of completed pages on the right side was higher than the stack on the left, he started wrapping things up. If Chester Himes had to conform, so do the rest of us.
For me, this started in 2007 when I wrote a first-person chick-lit novel about a woman who runs away to find romance in France entitled Annie’s Parisian Fling(s). When it was done, the first draft was just over 120,000 words. The thing was a mess and somehow it got out of controllably immense, mainly out of my need to get travelogue-y specific about aspects of Paris and the Val d’Oise that I liked. I thought about editing it down to 85,000 words or so to try and publish it, but the task seemed so daunting and I did it more as a test run than as something that would ever see the light of day. Also, how the fuck was I going to lose over a third of the book?
But then two things happened. First, I got submitted Joe Hill’s novella, Voluntary Committal, to adapt for film. Then, screenwriter John August published his novella, The Variant, to the Amazon Kindle and outlined very specifically on his website how easy it was to code and upload a story. If you haven’t read it, Voluntary Committal, from 20th Century Ghosts, is an amazing piece of work and was light years better than a lot of the more heralded novel-length horror stories I’d read lately. I got involved with the producers on it, we took it out as a pitch that didn’t sell (probably because what I most liked about the story and emphasized in my pitch were the things that made it the least cinematic – you will notice throughout this article that I fail at many things and any successes will seem downright accidental), but it made me revisit what a novella was and how well it can be used to tell a story. Hopefully, everybody reading this has read Different Seasons, the great collection of Stephen King novellas that are really the benchmark of the form in horror, some of the best writing he ever did. That, coupled with August’s boosterism of the DTP, got me thinking and, a few weeks later, I started writing Last Tuesday.
Wikipedia takes its definition of a novella from The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America who hand out the Nebula Award saying that a novella is between 17,500 and 40,000 words.
Eureka in the bathtub.
Here’s how my Kindle stories shake out word count-wise:
Last Tuesday – 22,282
Bones – 35.401
Sunday Billy Sunday - 63,696 (oops – accidental novel)
Night of the Scorpions –
Stuttering Hunter – 22,097
Gare du Nord – 8,512
Spider – 17,202 (oops –
almost a novella)
Meat – 6,198
Disembodied – 7,773
The rough draft of the Bones-sequel, Shepherd, is right at 42,000. This other one I’m working on is, today, at word 57,000, but is only two-thirds of the way done. I started putting together a short bit last week that’ll maybe reach 3,000 words (or will end up an 8-page comic short with my comics collaborator Rahsan Ekedal). I know for a fact that Disembodied should be closer to 12,000, but I think I fucked that one up.
For anyone who has ever struggled as a writer with word count or, similarly, for anyone who has ever read a novel, horror or otherwise, and felt that there were massive, massive chunks that were obviously just padding by an author with a series contract, then maybe you just had your own Eureka in the bathtub moment. You know your story is done at 35,000 words, but cannot imagine a publisher taking a chance on a first-time writer with a novella, so you think you might have to abandon it. I am here to suggest that if you just really, really want to get it out there rather than pad the thing out or turn it into something you don’t like, why not give the Kindle a shot?
But read on and you’ll see why that just might be the worst advice you’ve ever received.
You can upload something for download to the Kindle absolutely free. For example, I could take this article right
now and upload it to Amazon’s Digital Text Platform and, about forty-eight hours later, you could download it. If I
wanted to, I could charge $100 for it and, if you bought it, I’d get $35 of that in my pocket (well, in about sixty days).
There are a million reasons why this scenario would never play out, of course, and that’s what we’re getting into next.
A couple of years back, I met an artist named Rahsan Ekedal while working on a comic book for Dark Horse called The Cleaners. We were well-reviewed, we had plans for further arcs and further books beyond Cleaners, but we only sold about three copies, two of which went to my mother (just kidding – my mother would never read Cleaners). The only way we could’ve circumnavigated our poor sales to get more arcs would have been if Cleaners had been set up as a movie or TV show, but after that didn’t happen, Dark Horse and other comic publishers weren’t exactly banging down my door looking for new ideas.
Rahsan and I kept pitching comic book projects together, but unfortunately, none of them were remotely cinematic which, in this climate, would’ve made it easier (also: I’m a really bad pitcher and an even worse schmoozer). But that said, I loved working with Rahsan. We get each other’s weird ideas and we collaborate well. I knew I couldn’t pay him much, but I wanted to commission full-color covers for these Kindle books from him by laying out a little more than what he’d get for pencil-and-inking two pages of a comic.
No, this wasn’t enough money to set his world on fire and he probably gave me a discount anyway because I sometimes buy him (cheap) lunch, but he did the first four novella covers and I genuinely feel that they are as much an indication of how we work together as any panel of Cleaners.
The truth is, people judge books by their covers. It’s what we do. Even though I have now downloaded books onto
my Kindle that I don’t think I’ve even glimpsed the cover of beyond a fleeting glance at the brown-and-white rendering on the Kindle screen or the stamp-sized cover on my iPhone, these were books recommended by friends or a review I’d
read. The cover wasn’t going to sell me in those instances.
But these Kindle novellas had no friends and weren’t going to get reviews (at first, it turned out), so the cover was it, the first thing someone would see on the Amazon.com website or while searching through their Kindle. For me, the books had to stand out from the myriad of Photoshop covers a lot of other self-publishers utilized, so it was something I was willing to spend on, which brings up an important point of its own.
When you dip your toe into the world of self-publishing, you’ll quickly find that there are plenty of outfits out there who will gladly take your money to make a cover, to help you market your book, to copy edit your book, to get
you interviews on this nonexistent podcast or that and, for some, I’m sure it’s worth it to spend your money in that way. For me personally, I always knew my biggest outlay would be on the cover and that’s it. Nothing on marketing,
nothing on editing (hah!), nothing on anything else, but that’s a decision everybody has to make.
But right there, that decision to spend on covers combined with how much I knew I wanted to actually charge for the books was me deciding that I would never make a profit on these stories.
The good news? I don’t know how many people have commented to me about Rahsan’s covers being the motivated force behind their purchase, mostly Bones
and Sunday Billy Sunday (and later with the great comics artist Tony Fleecs’s cover to Stuttering Hunter, which just nails the story for me). The covers do their job and I quite like what they did. While we don’t exactly have the resources that the Scribner’s art department put behind Stephen King’s rather great Under the Dome hardback and, even better, in my opinion, paperback covers which cost thousands in
digital artists working in South America and in New York combining photography and painting and everything else, we put something out that I felt was better than a clip art or manipulated digital photo cover, but of course, that’s just an opinion and you could feel otherwise.
Beyond covers, there was one other thing I knew I was going to pay for, but luckily, it wasn’t as expensive. I used to know some basic code here and there when I worked for JDate.com. I don’t anymore and I don’t trust myself to be able to do it at a professional level.
So, I hired a great fellow named Joshua Tallent at ebookarchitects.com (http://www.ebookarchitects.com) to code and convert my stories and make them Kindle-ready. He’s great, he doesn’t charge me an arm and a leg and he’s fast. As he does this for a lot of publishers, when you’re actually looking at one of my stories on the Kindle, it looks the same as you would see in any other Kindle book.
If all I did was pay somebody to upload my stories and they sold the same amount, all of them except the latest one, Spider and Other Stories, would be in profits. But the “sold the same amount” is bullshit because without Rahsan’s covers, it’s a completely different matrix and who knows if I would’ve even sold one?
PRICING YOUR BOOK
Amazon is trying to create a benchmark for how ebooks are sold. They want Kindle users to expect to pay around $9.99 for a new book, a little less for paperbacks, nothing for public domain books, etc. The way this affects
self-publishers is that we are offered a 70% royalty if we charge between $2.99 and $9.99 a download. This means that if somebody drops $3 on your book, you get a little more than $2. $9.99? Well, you can do the math, but it’s a microdot under $7.
So you know, this isn’t normal. A 70% royalty? Maybe if you’re Stephen King (whose ears will be burning by the time this article is over). But, Amazon is trying to accomplish something and goddamn, if that’s not an attractive way to do it.
If you charge below $2.99 or above $9.99, you get a 35% royalty, which is still really, really good compared to most publishing houses (I think Agatha Christie got offered a 10% royalty when she first started out a hundred years
ago, which she thought insulting, but accepted – with, of course, an advance). The one caveat is that you can’t sell your stuff for free, which I initially wanted to do. Those that do have some kind of agreement with Amazon, but ordinary schlemiels like myself get a base of $.99. So, I charge $.99.
I don’t know if that was the right way to go. I don’t know if I would’ve sold as many as I have had they not been $.99 or, if by charging – say – $2.99, that 70% royalty of $2 against my 35% royalty of $.35 would even it out, despite having to sell six downloads for every one that would’ve been sold at $2.99. I don’t know the answer to that
question. It’s something that, if you the reader decides to get into self-publishing, you have to decide for
My reasons for $.99, at first, came from the fact that I wanted them to be cheaper than a comic book and I didn’t actually think I’d sell any. The reason I continued with this was that after they came out, the stories and their prices began appearing on various lists made by Kindle users for “a buck and under downloads” and whenever they went up on a new one, I always saw a spike in sales. Then, I actually got emails and a review or two that cited the price as what made readers pick them out. So, I’m staying at $.99 for now.
On a side note, when I decided to do a print edition of the first four stories (Four Nails in the Coffin) through Lulu.com, I was genuinely hoping to get the price down around $15 or so (actually, would’ve loved it to be $7.99 or so), but that wasn’t how Lulu works. I set the royalty I would get from selling a book through Lulu at the lowest I could – a dollar a book – but if you order it through Lulu, it still costs $22, a royalty of 4.5%. If you buy it through Amazon or Barnes & Noble’s website, it’ll cost you $19.98 and I get no royalty, but it saves the reader two bucks. Therefore, I tell anybody who wants to buy it to go to Amazon
(remember – the goal here is to be read so all decisions feed that). I make more from a good month of Kindle downloads than I have made off of Four Nails and as I’ve bought a ton of copies (they offer authors a discounted rate, however, so I’m paying around $14 per) to give away and as review copies, it has been my biggest money-losing bit of all of this.
What happened with Four Nails is very strange and I’ll get back to it. Though I haven’t done anything but lose money on it, I actually think it has turned out to be the key to this whole enterprise. More on that later.
GETTING IT OUT THERE
I mentioned earlier than I am a shitty, shitty schmoozer and an even worse pitcher, which makes me an awful fucking salesman, but I learned a lot from my year doing interviews and convention signings for The Cleaners.
Have you ever walked through a comic book convention where you see those hopeful faces on the comic book creators who are trying to get you to come and look at their wares, so you force your eyes to glaze over and make it look as if what you were really looking at was some hot femme cosplayer? Yeah, I was that guy at Wonder Con in San Francisco, the New York Comic Con and then the San Diego International Comic Con last year. People love Dark Horse books. They’re the best label out there and for signings of The Goon, their various Star Wars and Buffy titles, B.P.R.D., Hellboy, you-name-it, they’ve got lines around the block. But Cleaners was new and no one cared. Until, of course, I used my creator’s discount to buy up shitloads of copies of the book and then gave them away free as Rahsan and I autographed them. That got us attention as nothing draws a line at a comic convention like the cry of “FREE SHIT!” And not just a card or a sampler, but a free, honest-to-God comic book. We signed hundreds of the things, whole runs of the arc (#1-4), and never, ever heard a word back if anyone liked them or if they were just lining bird cages somewhere
(the exact same thing would later happen with the CHUD giveaway of Four Nails).
The good news, I have yet to see one of them on eBay where you can currently buy non-autographed ones.
To be fair, I think it was worth doing primarily because otherwise sitting there for an hour signing nothing would’ve been just too goddamn depressing for words, especially if it was more than one convention. If somebody read the comic and enjoyed it, even better.
From that, I had no idea how to get people to read my Kindle novellas as handing out free Kindles with all six stories downloaded onto it would be ridiculous…right? (Hmm…idea). I mentioned them on my (now-dead) Twitter feed and on my (now-dead) Facebook page and, sure enough, sold a bunch to my forgiving friends who were nice enough not to just ask for me to send them a .pdf to load into their Kindle. I used to drive right by the kids selling lemonade on their front lawn. Now, I stop and no matter how awful it is, I always buy the “bigger cup” if it’s an option. Thanks, friends. But as I am an anti-social wingnut in real life, that was a very small pool of people.
Which leads me to the Amazon “bestseller lists,” the greatest free marketing tool since the coaster. Technically-speaking, all of my stories have been bestsellers and in categories as varied as Horror, Science Fiction, Gay & Lesbian Fiction, Religious Fiction, Ghosts, etc. Bones and Last Tuesday spent months after they first came out going up and
down those lists, in fact, and I wish I had a way of telling how many downloads came from people scanning through the list, seeing something cheap, seeing the cover or maybe reading the description, and then downloading it. I actually think it’s sold a great deal as whenever they were on the charts, there’d consistently be a couple more downloads here and there than there’d be when they weren’t.
But the bestseller lists are skewed because they’re in the Kindle Store part of Amazon and aren’t competing with all the microwave ovens and golf clubs to be ranked. In the Kindle Store, I’ve had stories in the Top Ten of horror, bouncing higher than the myriad of Stephen King novels (and, yeah, all those bestselling Sookie Stackhouse books), but for, like, a couple of hours. Two people download your story in the same hour, you’re a bestselling goddamn writer. When I have announced a story on Twitter, it gets re-Tweeted and you have two dozen people download your story over the
course of a day? You look like the next Dean Koontz. Even better, when a new one hits it always drags the other ones back up onto the charts so you can have a brand new book at #12, a second one at #25 and a third at #78.
Give it a week and they’re all gone again, but hey, hopefully it meant a couple of extra sales.
What I have found is that, without any kind of marketing capital behind these books, my ways of getting my stories out there in a real way are extremely limited. I used Twitter, Facebook and then posts on the CHUD boards, but that was it. But then, you try other things.
When Ryan Rotten at ShockTillYouDrop announced that Four Nails in the Coffin was now available as a print edition, I didn’t sell a single copy of Four Nails because of his story, but there was a significant spike in my Kindle downloads. When Devin gave away fifty autographed copies of Four Nails here at CHUD, it didn’t contribute to a single person else buying a copy of Four Nails, but again, there was a tremendous spike in the Kindle downloads that lasted two full weeks. There will be a spike when this article goes up, which is, mercenarily, why I’m writing it.
Of course, there are people who download the stories outside of the spikes. All told, I’ve averaged a little better than three downloads a day over the past one year, mainly of Last Tuesday, Bones and Sunday Billy Sunday. There are spikes and there are droughts, but people continue to find out about the stories and are downloading them in a way
that is completely unrelated to me and any of my efforts to get them out there. I don’t know who these people
are, but I’m glad they exist. What I figure has something to do with it, though, are the reviews.
Reviews sell these books more than anything (even when I had no reviews to post on the Amazon product page, I used the reviews of Cleaners as, of course, it’s a common-enough practice to see as-yet-unreviewed hardbacks with blurbs are from the author’s previous work) and so I can’t stress enough that you should keep that in mind if you’re going to get into self-publishing. You can sell a bunch to your friends, but six weeks later, you’ve fallen off the map completely never to be heard from again unless you can get them into the hands of people who other people trust the advice or recommendations of who then continue the downloading cycle.
I am surprised at which friends and acquaintances of mine have reviewed my books using Amazon’s “Write your own review” option. They would never review anything else, but they’ve taken five minutes to post something there. For example, I know who “Frank Castle” is who reviewed Bones and Sunday Billy Sunday. He’s a friend of Rahsan’s who though I’ve never met, reads my books and has positively reviewed two of them. Thanks, Frank Castle – I owe you a Coke! My mother who has not read Cleaners? She has also not reviewed my books on Amazon, so sometimes it’s not easy getting people to review your books even when you think they might. Total strangers,
though, have no problem telling this English teacher’s son that his punctuation sucks, which is not incorrect.
Some of the reader reviews are really positive (“I found this highly entertaining, as well as thought provoking.”), some are negative or “iffy”; (“It loses 2 stars for being to [sic] short and not coming with cliff’s notes!”) and some are insane (not going to call out anyone specific; after all, they DID go to the trouble of downloading/reading the story). But there haven’t been any criticisms that I didn’t think fair, particularly about the failings of Last Tuesday, especially the very well-reasoned thoughts from the woman from Austin who made the Cliff Notes comment. These reviews, as they have somewhat accumulated into a four stars-ish rating on the ones that have been reviewed (so far, no one’s reviewed Night of the Scorpions), are certainly better than if there were seven or eight one or two star reviews staring back at you. But against, say, the aforementioned Under the Dome which currently has 997 reviews that have it locked into a four stars-ish average, it’s still relatively small in comparison to more mainstream fare on Amazon.
That said, what really cracked it all open for me with reviews was when Last Tuesday and, later, Sunday Billy Sunday were reviewed by a woman who goes by the name of ‘Red Adept’ online (http://redadeptreviews.com/) who runs a blog where she reviews a Kindle book every day of the week and even has time to send questionnaires to authors whose email addresses she can track down. It’s a really cool site and she went positive(-ish) on both of my stories and had a lot of insightful things to say, particularly about the failings of Sunday Billy Sunday, some of which I took into consideration when re-editing the book to be incorporated into Four Nails. Her reviews taught me what a “download spike” was all about. While she would tell you in advance when a review was to go up, all you had to do was check the Amazon backend and you’d see the number of downloads that had come in from her faithful readers and they are legion.
To that, I did nothing to get on her radar. She had read a book and had seen Last Tuesday in the “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought…” window and plucked it out. Last Tuesday hit in September of 2009, her review was in late January of 2010 and when it came out, the downloads in the next couple of weeks that I could pretty much directly attribute to her review were about the equivalent of the last two or three months worth of normal, every day ones. I could spin my own wheels to try and get downloads in a dozen different ways and it still wouldn’t have equaled the impact of a total stranger writing up the stories on her blog.
So, reviews were key even on my micro-level. When I say that I got a lot of downloads from her review, understand I’m not saying hundreds upon hundreds. I’m saying that if I took her to lunch at a Wendy’s for about a week, I’d probably have exhausted the money made from said downloads.
But it was this reason that I started focusing on the print version, Four Nails. A few Kindle-less people had asked about a print edition, but not that many. And I knew that if I wanted the stories to be taken (half-)seriously, that meant trying to get reviews out of the mainstream horror press, which to me meant Fangoria and Rue Morgue. I didn’t think they’d review Kindle stories, much less self-published books, but as I had a couple of horror credits from screenwriting, I figured I’d roll the dice. The worst thing they could say was “no.”
Months and months of editing, rewriting and learning how books are put together later, Four Nails existed
and I immediately sent it off to both outlets as well as dozens of other people who smiled politely and are currently using it to hold up a sofa. It all paid off when I got reviewed (positively – “proves here to be a quite gifted storyteller”) by Fangoria.com and then semi-positively (“suitably entertaining”) by Rue Morgue except for Sunday Billy Sunday (“Genuinely twisted and engrossing…may just leave you shaken for day”), which the reviewer seemed to spark to. The Fangoria one commented on the failings of a self-published book (you can read it here: http://www.fangoria.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=1329:four-nails-in-the-coffin-book-review&catid=53:book-reviews&Itemid=180), but also said nice things about it being character-driven. I couldn’t have hoped for a better reception either place.
The reviews hit around the same time, so I’m not sure which one had the greater impact on sales, but things have been “brisk” ever since. It was rare that someone downloaded Scorpions or Stuttering Hunter. Suddenly, people did. I got emails from people who had no idea that I was doing all this saying they were going to pick them up. Others told me that the reviews pushed it over the edge for them and though they didn’t have a Kindle, they downloaded the stories onto their PC or iPhone using the Kindle app.
Then the other stuff happened and other stuff after that and then, well, yeah. Hopefully something for Learn From My Kindle Fail: Year Two.
That brings us current.
In closing, let me reiterate – I Have Made Not A Penny From Any Of This. Even more than that, make no mistake, I am not a published author. I am a self-published author. I try really, really, really hard to edit these things, but shit slips through all the time because I make phonetic misspellings like a fiend, use punctuation like some use pepper (to misquote Christopher Hitchens) and, despite a B.A. in English, still am not 100% on uses of apostrophes in cases of plural possessive.
Because of that, no one reads these before the reader except me (other than with Gare du Nord which the screenwriter Derek Haas read before posting it to his site, PopcornFiction.com – on the Kindle, it’s downloadable with Stuttering
Hunter). They haven’t been submitted anywhere, no team of editors has gone over it with a fine tooth comb making this suggestion or that to make the stories better on a macro-level or correcting the grammar on a micro-level, so it’s all me. My wife won’t even read them first as she hears what they’re about and says I’m deranged.
But at the end of the day, more people have read Meat than a script about the Lewis & Clark expedition Universal paid me to write. More people have read Bones than ever read the six or seven drafts I did of The Messengers. I’d be willing to bet that fewer than forty people ever read my adaptation of Evan Connell’s Son of the Morning Star, but double that downloaded Spider and Other Stories in its first week. And though I never got to see my Friday the 13th on the big screen, much of what I wanted to say about the slasher genre is within the
pages of Sunday Billy Sunday.
So, it all evens out. On top of that, I’d be lying if I said that writing these stories hasn’t made me a better writer in general. And I love doing it. And every time a new one comes out, there’s a wider pool of first-day downloaders, which may seem like a small thing, but it gets
me excited about writing the next one. Everyone needs a hobby.
I don’t know if self-publishing through the Kindle is right for you, whoever you are who actually got here to word 5,300-something, but hopefully this article has walked you through enough of what I did so that you’ll see some of the big obvious pitfalls and will be able to do it better than I.