How I got an agent…
So, how did this happen? What led me to sign with this particular agency? Who did I know (because you have to have contacts in this industry!)?
Well, like a lot of stories, it starts kind of randomly. I was at NorWesCon, and I’d just gotten out of a panel, and I was waiting for the next one on my list to start. Across the hall, two guys were talking about the changes in the publishing industry, and new genres that one of them was interested in, including fantasy and urban fantasy. Well, I just so happen to write in that genre, so I deftly joined their conversation. Somewhere along the way, we all traded business cards, and I learned exactly who I was talking to: Trodayne Northern, from Prentis Literary, and Lawrence M Schoen, a Nebula nominee for science fiction. As we went on, I mentioned that business was so good for urban fantasy for me that I had out-earned Jim Hines last year, (but quickly pointed out that I hadn’t out-SOLD him). It was about here that we decided this conversation was a lot more interesting to us than whatever the panel was on, so we wandered over to one of the little sitting areas, commandeered a table and proceeded to talk about publishing, self-publishing and sales. At the end of things, Trodayne invited me to have dinner with him the next night so we could talk further, and I could meet the other two agents from Prentis.
So, the next night, I pitched some of my upcoming work over dinner, and they told me about what they had in mind to help capitalize on what I had already done to get me the best deal possible going forward. I’d already done my research on them, and I knew by then that they had represented Patricia Briggs. They asked to see some of my current work, and for something from my pipeline, which of course I sent them immediately. The thing was, as much as it actually was a business meeting over dinner, it also felt like I was having dinner with friends I’d also just happened to be doing business with for years. They answered a lot of my questions without me having to ask. I walked away feeling pretty positive about things.
So, NorWesCon came to a close, and I went home feeling pretty good about my career. And the truth was…I hadn’t shown up intending to pitch to an agent.
Over the next few weeks, we exchanged a few emails, as Trodayne and Leslie hit other conventions leading up to the Nebula awards in Chicago. Then, on a Wednesday afternoon as I was driving out of Springfield on my way to X-Con, my phone rings, and it’s Trodayne and Leslie. I pulled over to take that call, and got the news I think pretty much every author wants to hear: They wanted to represent me. We went over the details for a few more minutes, and I resumed my journey on cloud nine. I signed the contract a few days later, and made the announcement today. Now it’s starting to feel real.
There are a few things I’d like to mention.
First thing to remember here is that I didn’t come to the table with just a manuscript. When I showed up to NorWesCon in late March, I was already writing full time, with six books of my own across two series, and a seventh that was a spin-off from another successful series. I showed up with a solid base of readers and a track record of being able to earn with my work. I gave them a solid set of numbers to work with.
Second, while I showed up at NorWesCon with only one contact, I left with half a dozen. A lot of folks say it’s who you know in this business, and I think that knowing the right people can be extremely helpful. The thing is, a lot of folks also seem to think that if you don’t have contacts, you’re out of luck. The truth is, you can and will make them as you go. Just ask my friend Ronnie Virdi, who has recently made friends with Jim Butcher and Kevin J Anderson. So, yeah, contacts are important, but just because you don’t have them doesn’t mean you can’t make them. You just have to get out there and talk to people at conventions.
Finally, kind of a double point. Don’t give up hope and keep your options open. You never know who you might meet or what might happen. So keep your business cards with you, keep a quick pitch rehearsed and stay professional.
Trodayne Northern (l), Lawrence M. Schoen (c), Me (the dorky one on the right)
For the past few years, Jim Hines and John Scalzi have done blog posts where they talk about how much they made that year. I figured this year, it was my turn. They also use pie charts to show certain things, and who doesn’t like pie? So, I might find a use for one, too. Maybe a graph or two, even! Because numbers.
First, a little background. In 2014, I released my first self-published book, Zompoc Survivor: Exodus. It did pretty well, selling about 2500 copies or so its first month. All told for 2014, I made a little over $7,000. Not a bad first year. As the year ended, I decided to release my Demon’s Apprentice series again after getting the rights back from the publisher, and it started off reasonably well. But nothing prepared me for January of 2015, when The Demon’s Apprentice started to take off. And I was even less prepared for what happened in February, when Page of Swords blew its predecessor out of the water and hit #1 on the Paranormal chart on Amazon. The rest of the year was a bit of a roller coaster ride, and I’ll chart it with you. All told, before taxes, I made $67,384 in 2015, which is only a little less than what Jim C. Hines made, if you add in what he made before his agent’s commission.
Now, before that sounds too braggy, remember that since his royalties are from traditional sales, he probably sold a metric ton more books than I did. My guess would be that he sold at least three to four books for every copy I that I sold, which is why agents and big publishers aren’t kicking down my door just yet. Earnings doesn’t equal salability.
Products and Distribution
What this represents is a total of six books in two series sold exclusively through Amazon. After a certain point roughly half of this income represents revenue from Kindle Unlimited. The series are the Zompoc Survivor series and the Demon’s Apprentice series. The genres are post-apocalyptic/dystopian and YA paranormal respectively. Most of my revenue comes from the Demon’s Apprentice series. In fact, every month where I earned more than $10k corresponds with or closely follows a release in that series.
While my career is proof that you can make it by selling solely through Amazon, that may not be the path for everyone. But it sure seems to work with YA paranormal and zombie novels. Later on, I may go with a wider distribution, but for now, this is working.
Breakdown by Month
Below is a chart that shows my total income each month. The thing to remember is that the month I earn the money is two months after the sales have actually happened. So, January is showing what I earned in November, February shows what I earned in December and so on.
So, as you can see, my income varied greatly by month. The chart below breaks it down as a percentage of the annual amount was earned in a given month.
One thing you can easily see from both charts is that more than half of my income came in three months. What happened in those months? Oh, that part is easy: I had book releases around those times. Demon’s Apprentice in late December, Page of Swords in late February, ZS: Odyssey in August and Vision Quest in mid-October. And between book releases, you can see how my income went down. Now, some may argue that my income drop also was most pronounced during the summer, which is typically a dry time for self-published authors. I released the third in the Zompoc Survivor series in August, which caused the small jump in October, so that could also add weight to that line of reasoning as well.
Another thing I learned in looking at this is that for me, a book release has a strong cycle of about two months, and then things drop to a much lower level, one that stayed pretty steady between books. In a way, this kind of mirrors what traditional publishing sees, I think, a strong start and then a drop off after a month or two. The difference is that my books stay available on line after that, which is where my main customer base is, while traditional books, unless they do REALLY well, tend to fall off the shelves after that big sales period (and traditional authors see returned copies come out of their royalties). So this is another place where I think I tend to have an advantage over a traditional author, because I don’t have that drain on my royalties. My physical books are print on demand. So, like a traditional writer, I have that bigger influx at the beginning, then I’m in the trough between books, only I’m still making a little money.
One thing that I learned this year was patience. While February ended with more than $10,000 in sales, I didn’t see that until the end of April. That was a long sixty days. As soon as that hit, and I knew I had another fifteen grand on the way, I was at a point where I could quit my job, since I would have what I made in a year at that job essentially in the bank before I hit the middle of the year. From there, I knew I had a bit of a cushion if I needed it, and I kept that buffer in place.
And as soon as I DID have the full amount in my hands, my wife and I sat down and figured up our total bills for a month, and I set aside enough to cover my half of them for the rest of the year in a completely separate account. All of our bills were set to autopay, and overall, we didn’t change our lifestyle in a lot of big ways. We still live like I made what I used to. If I had to point at one big change in this year, it’s been that we just haven’t had to worry about money. My largest new expense was a decent used car for going to conventions. No new jewelry, no long vacations or any other huge expenses, and no sudden move to a bigger house.
Up until May of this year, I worked in customer service for a credit card company (much like Dave Stewart in the Zompoc series, except mine wasn’t the hell hole his was). My work week was 34 hours, and I devoted those extra hours and more to writing. My wife worked overnights and in recent years, went to evenings, so most of my writing time happened between midnight and three or four AM. I used to put in about fifteen to twenty hours a week on writing. Since May, that number has gone up considerably, though I also end up putting in a more than a few hours each week on marketing and the nuts and bolts of actually putting a book together and managing my writing career. Convention appearances and speaking engagements take time to do right, or at least, they do for me.
Whatever conclusions you might draw from the numbers and patterns, looking at this does prove one thing for certain: as an independent author, you HAVE to publish regularly. And you have to keep your name out there where people can see you. Many of my sales during the summer came from convention appearances and just handing my card out to people. While I didn’t make it into the $100K range like some writers, I also acknowledge I’m something of an outlier, and that as much skill and effort as I put into things, there was still a measure of luck involved. But luck only does so much. Once you’ve been blessed with a little you have to do something with it, like write the next book and up your game a notch.
For aspiring and current authors, I hope this gives you an idea of what is possible. A LOT of people have never heard of me, and that's okay. Enough people have that I can write for a living, and that's the important part. It IS possible to succeed at this without selling your soul or compromising your craft. You don't have to make the NYT Bestseller list in order to write full time. (It helps, though).
Recently, fellow Missouri author Lisa Medley posted a blog post about the cost to self-publish her first book. Now, some folks have given her a little flack for paying for things she didn’t have to, and the amounts she paid and so on, without understanding the context of her choices. They’ve claimed some of her expenses were mistakes. But while she made some different decisions than I did, I think I’d rather have made her mistakes than mine. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Lisa through a local writers’ group, and I was thrilled for her when Harlequin picked up her Reaper series a few years back, right around the time I was first published by Pendraig Publishing, a small press out of California. Oddly enough, we both had some similarities in our experiences, in that we both got picked up by publishers, and we were both disappointed by the results. And we BOTH went to self-publishing.
Now, here is where our experiences differ. First off, Lisa writes in the VERY competitive romance market, specifically in paranormal romance. I write urban fantasy and zombie fiction. Technically, the zombie novels are post-apocalyptic sci-fi. And I will tell you from a total lack of experience but from knowing folks who know the business…romance is an expensive genre to write in. Sci-fi and fantasy…not so much. So it stands to reason that though we’re both following a similar path to publishing, our costs were different.
Lisa broke her costs down pretty thoroughly for her first book, and I thought I would do something similar for my first self-published book. However, I’ll also break down some of the costs for one of my later books as well. Lisa chose to do a few things that I didn’t, mostly because she’s a class act and I’m a hack writer. So, where our paths differ, understand that my choices don’t reflect on a disagreement with hers or anything like that.
So, on with the show. Here’s how the expenses for Zompoc Survivor: Exodus played out.
Zompoc Survivor Exodus
Write the book: Time and energy, $0
Recruit beta readers in place of an editor: Time and energy, mention in acknowledgements, $0
Make cover myself: Time, effort, $0
Format myself on Smashwords & Amazon: Time, effort, headaches, stress, $0
Get ISBN number from Createspace for print copy: $0
Let Amazon assign ASIN instead of ISBN to e-book: $0
Createspace proof w/ slow boat to China level shipping: $6.36
Advertising via spamming on promo groups on Facebook: 2-4 hours daily, $0
10 copies from Createspace: $35.50
Prize shipping: $30
Total cost: Time, effort, Sanity, hair loss, $71.86
Now, notice one HUGE thing I did different from Lisa: I did a LOT of the work myself. Formatting, cover, editing, all me. Some folks might think this is a great idea. But while some folks have pointed out on Facebook that Lisa paid for some things that might not have been strictly necessary, I am here to tell you, she made the better decision!
First off, the editing. This is something no writer should try to handle on their own, in my personal opinion. Here, let me get on my soapbox and shout that out with a megaphone and some neon lights. DON’T DO IT! If you love your readers…if you want to ever HAVE readers, don’t edit your own work if you can avoid it. Even if you can’t avoid it, at least get some good beta readers. See, I was very lucky when I went searching for beta readers. I asked other successful writers who they had beta read their work, and I went to talk to those people. Best bad decision I ever made, that. One of those beta readers now has her own business as an editor and proofreader. So, I wasn’t smart, I was lucky.
Second dumb thing I did that ended up turning out okay: the cover. For my cover, I went through some of my photos and found one in my files that I could alter to the point you couldn’t tell who it was or where they really were with ease because of the composition of the photo. Then I took it from color to black and white and ran it through a water-color wash and BAM, instant iconic image for my cover. Then, I did one other smart thing. Remember how I talked to other successful authors about beta readers? Same thing here. I found out what worked and made the changes they suggested. And it worked. Of all my covers, it’s by far the most amateurish, and it shows. But again, luck favored me in many ways.
Finally, formatting. Dang, that was a learning process. I wish I knew then what I know now. The print version of ZS: Exodus doesn’t have page numbers because I didn’t know how to insert them. The front matter is painfully bare. It took several tries to get it to actually read the way I wanted to. And for the record: I still do it myself, and I still hate doing it. But I’m getting better at it.
So, my first book cost me less than $100 to self-publish, but as Lisa also points out in her blog, as the publisher, all of the responsibility for getting it done right was on me. And somehow, I was up to the task, even if it was entirely by accident. Because, like Lisa discovered, having the right people in your corner is crucial.
Now, here is another place where my experience differs slightly from Lisa’s. For ZS: Exodus, the bar to break even was low. So, I had some leeway to do something that I believe has had a tremendous impact on my career.
I practically gave my first book away. My initial price point was 99₵ and I kept it there for a month. Now, at that rate, I would have had to have sold just over 200 copies to break even. I sold over 2500 in the first month. Later on, when I raised my price to the full $2.99, my ranking was so high, I still recouped my costs several times over. However, even if I had spent more on the first book, I would have still done the same thing, because the high initial rankings got me sales at the higher price point. More importantly, the high volume made up for the loss in potential income with repeat readers.
In the end, ZS: Exodus ended up making me enough to hire professionals to handle the two things I should never touch again: editing and covers. When it came time to put ZS: Inferno out, I paid a LOT more for those two services, an easy $500-600 for editing and covers. I made that back in the first month it was out. In short, my second book presents (and thus sells) a lot better than my first book did because I spent more money on it.
So, the lesson here is that it IS possible to self-publish a book for less than $100. But it isn’t a good idea. Lisa’s initial offering presents a lot better than mine did. If you’re going to make mistakes, follow Lisa’s example and err on the side of quality. That’s the better decision. If you’re going to make my mistakes, you’re going to have to make them EXCEPTIONALLY well. As in the “you’re going to have to roll sevens three times in a row with loaded dice” kind of well. And trust me, you don't want to rely on luck more than skill.
Your first book is an investment, and truth be told, if I had to give one piece of hard to swallow advice, it would be this: Don’t expect to make a lot back on your first book. Your first book is an investment in your fan base, and your royalties from that book are an investment in your second book. Assume a loss early on that is going to pay off in spades in the long run.
What is that pay-off? Consistent sales. So far, I’ve self-published three books. Because of the investment in my first book with the low price point and high volume of sales (and a lot of luck), all three books have hit the top 100 in their genres in the first month they’ve come out. The first book attracted a strong fan base. The second and third got them to come back, and they brought friends.
In conclusion: Write a damn good book. Invest in it. Write another damn good book and invest in it. Repeat as necessary.
I should be finishing my next book tonight. But I’m not. Right now, I’m following the Amazon vs Hachette dispute, mostly out of morbid curiosity. Now, for those of you who are avid readers, or who have been following this whole thing, you know that we all have a dog in this fight. As readers, we’re faced with the prospect that many of our favorite authors’ books will become more and more expensive to buy on Kindle if Hachette wins. Because evidently, Hachettte thinks they need to sell fewer e-books than they do hard copies.
As authors…well, it depends on who you are. If you're a traditionally published author, my personal opinion is that the prospect of Hachette winning this battle should scare the living shit out of you. Here’s what I foresee you being able to look forward to if they do:
More “life of copyright” clauses.
More non-compete clauses.
Higher prices for your e-books, without a corresponding increase in return for you.
Fewer e-book sales for you.
More indie authors outselling you.
More indie authors.
As an indie author, I still have a dog in this fight, but it’s more of a sentimental thing than an economic one. See, I hate it when authors suffer. And in the end, whether Hachette wins or loses, their authors are going to suffer. I can guarantee that. I’ve been around for a few years, and the only thing I’ve ever seen roll downhill without fail is shit. My personal and political views aside, I don’t see Hachette authors coming out ahead in this whole thing no matter how it plays out. Hachette’s executives…bonuses all around, motherfuckers, because “integrity” and shit. Authors? Sorry, we had to cut our marketing budget, and so on. In my messed up worldview, this is how it’s going to play out either way. And for Hachette’s authors, this has got to look like some kind of Greek tragedy at some point. These folks HAVE to root for Hachette as the hand that feeds them. I mean, yeah, they could decide not to play by the corporate script, but being a voice of reason in a tragedy usually earns you an early and messy death offstage. So for many, all they can do is shut up, hang on and hope they survive the inevitable plunge over the cliff. Some, however, are up there with the mad king whipping the horses. Not sure what they’re thinking is, and I usually end up being a wiseass when I try to figure it out.
No matter which side prevails here, there is one thing I’m certain of in this whole thing:
If Amazon wins, I think we all win. I could be wrong. I have about a 50/50 success rate with that predicting the future thing. This is why I don’t do psychic readings for a living. But the way I see it, Amazon gets Hachette to price books reasonably, and readers can afford their favorite writers’ books. Hachette’s authors sell a TON of books. Hachette makes money, Amazon makes money, and I keep making money like I always have. (Zombies sell. Always. Thanks Mr. Romero.) Unicorns poop rainbows and fart glitter and the world is a happy place, unless you’re a Hachette author, in which case, you still get a little screwed. Yay peace on Earth.
If Hachette wins, the other Big Four come into their negotiations with Amazon stronger than before and demand similar deals. Big publishing house e-books cost a lot and sell enough to earn best seller status just long enough to slap it on the cover of a book below an author’s name. Indie authors’ books cost less and our readers are the ones who get good books at a decent price, which means we sell a ton of books and more of us make a living as writers than Big Five authors do. We make money, Amazon makes money. I poop rainbows and fart glitter, which means my doctor makes money. Hachette’s authors still get a little screwed. Maybe more than a little.
In the short run, indie authors win either way, and I’m fine with that. Granted, very little of the coverage of this whole clash of literary titans has acknowledged that we even exist, much less have an opinion on the outcome. In the long run, that is going to hurt the publishing houses. The big publishers have never realized who their true customers really are. To publishers, their customers are bookstores and booksellers. Readers are an unfortunate distraction that someone else has to deal with, which means publishing houses have no almost interest in what readers want outside of how that drives bookstores. They almost never talk to the people who are actually buying their product at the end stage. They have long forgotten where the loyalties of readers truly lie.
Word of warning, publishers: Readers have zero loyalty to you. ZERO. “I can’t wait until Simon & Schuster puts a new book out!” said no reader ever. Guess who readers send fan mail to? Hachette executives? Hachette stockholders? No.
Authors. Readers follow authors. Readers love authors. Readers wait for authors to put books out. Readers have conversations with the people who write the books they love. Readers leave reviews for those folks. We talk to our readers; in our blogs, on our websites and in emails, face to face conversations and through the stories we write, we develop those relationships with our readers. Publishing executives don’t. If I meet Jim Butcher, I’m likely to go all fan boy. If I meet the CEO of Roc Books, I’m likely to not know it or really give a damn. It is the relationships that authors have created with readers that keeps a publisher alive. And in this day and age, an author can sever their relationship with a publisher without ending their relationship with their readers. With Amazon, they can do it and still make a living without needing a publisher.
That should scare some folk.