God might not be calling his elect up today, but something truly extraordinary is taking place.  The gray lady herself, the esteemed New York Times, has an essay in the BOOK REVIEW section extolling self-publishing.

Neal Pollack who describes himself as “midlist, midcareer” finds that for a writer in his position, “self-publishing seems to make a lot of sense.”

He plans to put out a novel that he doesn’t believe would be the “easiest proposition for mainstream publishers” as the theme doesn’t involve vampires, but Jews and basketball and the length is short.  He plans to charge $4.99 and believes this will quickly earn him the equivalent of a pleasant advance.

He thinks there may be expenses including of course cover art and plane fare if he decides to do “readings and on-the-ground media in New York and Philadelphia where the book is set.”  He mentions a “modest print run.” Good luck with that, Neal.

Neal references Amanda Hocking (of course).  He writes of Stephen King’s e-book experiments, but he seems to have no real clue about what savvy self-publishers already know.   He writes, for instance, that he wouldn’t recommend self-publishing to a “first time author.”  Yet, several first time novelists who found the gates closed on traditional publishing have done quite well on their own.

I’m not an expert, nor am I Amanda Hocking for that matter.  My own experiment with self-publishing has yielded only modest results, but I know enough to know that Neal might want to do a little more research before setting out.  If you happen to have stumbled onto this, Neal, might I ask you to examine a few of your assumptions and assertions:

Price point:  $4.99? Yes, that’s half what Amazon is charging on Kindle for your book, Never Mind the Pollacks, The Literary Music of Neal Pollack which is not exactly flying off the shelves, but $4.99 is still considered a lot for a self-published e-book even by a previously published author.  Stephen Leather and JA Konrath have turned their back-lists into gold at 99 cents a piece, and even the New Yorker’s Susan Orlean who will be entering the fray with a short work to be published with some hoopla by Amazon, will be charging no more than $1.49.   Yes, you have a following, but maybe not at the Kindle Store yet or for the type of book you are planning.  Most of the bestsellers on Kindle are genre novels — mysteries, thrillers, and those “teen vampire” books you make fun of.  Books like the one you are writing don’t appeal to publishers because the market is small, not non-existent, just modest and the gamble on a print run may be not be one publishers can afford.  E-books cost less to produce.  But there’s a glut of high quality, self-published books selling for less than $4.99, on Kindle. You may find your market there, but it won’t be huge and you’ll have to work for it.  Your competition won’t be the $9.99 bestsellers from mainstream publishers, but the already known “independents” selling at 99 cents to $2.99 a pop.

Are you really in a position to give advice to first-time authors? You advise first-timers not to try self-publishing, lest they wind up in a “virtual slush pile.” Have you read anything about how difficult it is for someone, even someone with previous publishing credits to get a contract on a first novel these days, especially something like the one you’re publishing — a book with no vampires or zombies? The gates are shut.  Yet, if you look at the top hundred Kindle sellers in the US and UK Kindle store, you’ll see many “indie” writers unknown to publishers.  And if you take a peek at the genre lists, you’ll see even more.  I’m no insider, but I am actual virtual friends with three “first-time” writers who are bestselling authors. Lexi Revellian’s book Remix, was in the top 100 in Amazon UK for months.  It’s now down to around 126, but her new one Replica is holding at 50.  Jake Barton’s Burn Baby Burn is #26 in the UK, and he has two others that aren’t doing badly.  Dan Holloway’s first “indie” literary novel, Songs from the Other Side of the Wall, got some good reviews but didn’t take off.  His thriller, set in Oxford, The Company of Fellows is holding its own in the top 50 in the category of “mysteries and thrillers.”

Think about that “modest print run” you propose and find some alternative uses for the print books you don’t sell — doorstops, kindling, etc:  Print runs cost money.  Many successful independently published writers aren’t even bothering with them, especially for shorter books.  Those that do, generally use print-on-demand.  Traditional printing is less expensive for a run of a thousand books or more, but it’s still going to be both a huge risk and a substantial out-of-pocket expense. I hate to break this to you, but getting your independently published book into bookstores is going to be difficult.  Prepare for rejection like you’ve never seen it.   As for your plan to do “on the ground media” in New York and Philadelphia, there are tons of local authors trying to get readings at stores and to get their books onto shelves.  It doesn’t sound like you’ve thought through the pitfalls, including the 55% discount and return policies that online and brick and mortar bookstores demand.

I’m not trying to be discouraging, Neal.  This isn’t an exclusive club. Nobody needs an invitation.  Granted, you have experience that many first-time self-publishers lack.  You’ve done book publicity before, you have a name and a following, and you are a professional.  But this is still a new game, and you’ll play better if you learn the rules before you jump in.  Your essay in the Times implies an access to media that most new independent authors lack, but I hate to break this to you, the readers of The New York Times Book Review aren’t necessarily the biggest e-book buyers or purchasers of the self-published. Your potential readers are in places like Big Al’s Books and Pals, Kindle Boards, and RedAdept Reviews.  Ever heard of them?  If the answer is no, you have a lot to learn.

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11 Comments on Some Things to Consider Before Peddling Your Prose on Kindle

  1. Dan Holloway says:

    “Think about that “modest print run” you propose and find some alternative uses for the print books you don’t sell — doorstops, kindling, etc”
    So she’s contradicting herself – she *is* advocating that 1st time authors kindle their books!

    What I’ve found most interesting has been the differing response to those two books. I wouldn’t say one is a better book than the other. I’m very proud and somewhat surprised to have written both of them, but Songs has some great reviews from “mainstream”(ish) media, and taps into the Murakami market. Yet even at £0.70, in 8 months with an existing following it’s sold 139 copies whilst The Company of Fellows has sold 1950 in under 3 months from a standing start, and is currently selling 45-50 a day. It really is a genre-writer’s market. At the moment. I think we honestly can’t say what will happen in the future. What we *can* say is that we have to keep abreast of developments and respond quickly to any changes – and be prepared to throw any dogmas or preconceptions out of the window.

    And Marion, your writing, your innovation, and your success, have been an inspiration.

    • Marion says:

      No, maybe it wasn’t clear. Neal (who is a he, btw) doesn’t recommend self-publishing to first timers, but plans on doing an e-book and a modest print run on his own. I was referring to that.
      As for your books, the better sales on Fellows (which I still haven’t read!) doesn’t surprise me. The mystery/thrillers are really taking off at the UK Kindle store, the literary fiction, not so much.

      Dan, I am again humbled by your references to my “success.” You were the one who founded Year Zero and showed people like me that literary fiction writers could go it alone in the first place!

  2. Dan Holloway says:

    Sorry, Marion I got the she/he confused from your NY Times as she reference. Apologies to Neal 🙂
    My first para was a joke, btw about the use of the word Kindle 🙂
    I agree with you – the small print run is really misguided. I just don’t think you can do that as a midlister as part of a mixed strategy – you’re committing yourself to selling a vast number of ebooks to make up your overhead. If you’re going to do a print run you need to commit yourself to print and make that your USP.

  3. Really interesting post Marion. I agree, he seems a bit behind the curve. It’s no great surprise to me that genre fiction is hitting high, especially thrillers. Most of the people I know who have Kindles read A LOT, and most of the people I know who read a lot have found their way through popular fiction to the thriller genre because of its vast catalogue. It’s one of the reasons that from a few different ideas I picked for my next project the one that had a crime/thriller element to the narrative.

    Dan, I would probably have expected though that the success of your thriller would have given the other books some residual sales. It’s surprising that ‘Songs…’ hasn’t been boosted by it – and also a real shame.

    • Marion says:

      He may be “behind the curve” but my guess is he’ll be a fast learner, and the book review piece along with the launch of Amazon shorts and Susan Orlean’s going straight to Kindle are signs of the times. As someone who prefers paperbacks to electronics under most circumstances, I’m not thrilled about what’s happening in publishing, but as someone who’s found a little opening to readers through e-books, I’m happy to see them gaining recognition and respect.

  4. I am so thrilled to have had the great luck to have found you, Marion, and your colleagues, and to have read your excellent piece in response to the Neal Pollack piece in The New York Times. I may consider self-publishing down the road, if my book does not make it into print. It received an offer from a Big Six publisher not so long ago, an offer which had to be withdrawn because the publisher of 13 years was the next day fired. So we shall see. But in any case, I do have friends who are considering self-publishing and I am right now going to put the link for your blog on my brother-in-law, Pete Morin’s FB page (I already posted it on mine). He is into self-pub and has many friends who are also into that. Thank you for your wonderful generosity and help. Best warm wishes, Danielle (I also have another little website: http://www.findingyourfather.com).

    • Marion says:

      Pete’s a friend. Congrats on getting your offer and having an agent. I’ll check out your website, and I’m glad you find the post helpful.

  5. Tim Lemire says:

    Marion:

    I don’t own a Kindle or ebook reader. How many “pages” do these 99-cent books run? I see your point about accessible pricing, but I’m curious how many pages authors are generally selling for that price.

    Thanks,
    TSL

    • Marion says:

      It’s a mixed bag. Authors set their prices, so there are many longer works available for 99 cents and many unknown self-published writers will sell at this price in the hopes of selling more books. Again, this isn’t some crazy idea of mine. There is a ton of information on the web written by writers far more successful at selling on Kindle than I will ever be. (Konrath and Leather, for starters). However, Stephen Leather’s bestseller, The Basement, which did much better on Amazon UK then in the US, was a shorter work, under 50K words at 99 cents. (It’s hard to judge page-length as many of the works aren’t available in papgerback.) Kindle is now introducing a program called Amazon Shorts that will feature shorter works and have a low-price point. I brought it up because Pollack mentions that the length of the novel is 150 pages, which is relatively short of a novel and because I’ve seen Kindle forums where readers were not pleased at having shelled out what they consider a full-price for shorter work. What I would recommend is that anyone considering putting a book on Kindle research the information that is out there on price before they come up with one. My prediction would be that if he releases his 150 page novel at $4.99, unless he’s very clear in the book description that it’s short, he’s bound to get at least a couple of disgruntled types writing a nasty review the customer pages because they feel ripped off, and he’s bound to lose sales if people know it’s short at that price.

  6. Emily H. says:

    I don’t really get the logic of this piece. You imply that Pollack doesn’t understand self-publishing because he doesn’t recommend it to first-time authors… even though you’re aware of “several first time novelists” who’ve succeeded with it? Out of the thousands of novelists who want to become successful? That proves it’s possible to strike lucky with self-publishing, but doesn’t prove it’s a good strategy to stake your career on. Without a publishing house to publicize their book, most new authors won’t get anywhere with self-publishing.

    Anyway, Pollack says in the piece that with just 1000 sales he can earn enough to make the whole undertaking worthwhile. He’s hardly counting on becoming a bestseller, and his logic seems pretty sound to me.

    • Marion says:

      First, please reread what I actually wrote. I never said that Pollack doesn’t “understand” self-publishing, nor was I “implying” it. He presents a good case for why he is choosing to self-publish Jewball. In fact, I’m glad he’s self-publishing because Jewball sounds exactly like the kind of book I’d like to read, and the kind that traditional publishers wouldn’t take a chance on in today’s market.

      Second, I was not, as you state above, trying in any way to “prove” that self-publishing is a “good strategy to stake {your} career on.” I never said or implied anything of the kind.

      My post wasn’t about self-publishing as a career strategy. It was a response to Pollack’s essay in which he makes several statements that led me to think he hasn’t done a lot of research about self-publishing. By research I mean looking at authors who are successfully doing it and finding out what they have to say. My suggestion was simply that he check out some of these sources, as he might find them helpful.

      Pollack makes the distinction that while he is choosing to self-publish, those who are “first time writers” should not, lest they wind up in the “virtual slush pile.” The crux of his essay was about his decision to self-publish. His warning to first time authors seemed, in that context, out of place. It felt less than generous (and a bit dismissive) for him to warn others not to seek their own path, especially as he does not appear to have a lot of experience himself on that particular path.

      I responded by pointing to three novelists I happen to know who are actually doing well with independently published first books. I wasn’t implying that this was what other people should do, nor that this was the result that most people could expect. All three of them have blogs and have written about their experiences and why they chose the route they did. None of them made the decision lightly. Having read their blogs, I’d recommend them to others considering it.

      You are absolutely right that without a publisher to publicize books, most writers won’t get anywhere with self-publishing, but most writers won’t get a contract with a publisher either. That’s reality. Just as Pollack as a mid-list author had to make a decision about the best way to get Jewball out to readers, first time novelists may also need to decide the best way to get their work out. It’s a decision that each writer needs to make, and it’s one that involves weighing risks and benefits. I don’t think it’s helpful for anyone to be giving off-the-cuff, broad career advice to anyone.

      Speaking purely as a reader, I can think of several “first books” I’ve read in the past couple of years that were self-published that blew me away. I’m grateful that those writers found a way to get those books out. (If you are interested in knowing the names of those books, just check the “book review” category on this blog.)

      As for your second paragraph, I read Pollack’s piece and understand that he is looking for modest sales. He mentioned a specific dollar amount as a goal. He based that on a thousand sales with his earning a royalty of 70% of $4.99 on each one. He may very well make his goal within a year at his price. However, based on what I’ve read on both the Kindle customer forums and in writers’ blogs, that seems like a high-end price for an independently published book, especially one that is relatively short. I recommended that he do some research before setting a price on his book, specifically that he read some blogs by authors who came up with successful pricing strategies for their books. Selling books on your own isn’t easy. Fortunately, Pollack doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel. He can look at others who’ve succeeded.

      I’m not sure why you seem to think of my response as some kind of attack on Neal Pollack. It wasn’t meant to be. I have no reason to believe he took it as one, and I stand by what I wrote.

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