Friday, September 12, 2014

Indie publishing, UK style

I'm excited to be appearing at the Bloody Scotland Crime Writing Festival next week, very dramatic timing, since the festival begins the day after the vote on Scottish independence! 

Along with appearing on a panel on crossing the supernatural with crime fiction, the usual book signings, and hosting a table at the banquet, I'm moderating a panel on indie publishing, UK style. If you're in the neighborhood, hope you'll stop by. And if you aren't, you may be interested in a UK author/agent and UK indie author's perspectives, below.


Digital Detectives: The author independence debate

This year at the Bloody Scotland Crime Writing Festival, crime authors Allan Guthrie and Ed James will be discussing their books and their roads to independent publishing success, chaired by American crime author Alexandra Sokoloff. The panelists will share how they have reached hundreds of thousands of readers worldwide and built or added to full-time writing careers through self-publishing, on Saturday, 20 September, 10 am-11 am, in the Academy Suite, Stirling Highland Hotel, Stirling. (Ticket information here).

Allan Guthrie’s traditionally published crime novels have won multiple nominations and awards (the American Edgar, the UK’s Theakston’s Crime Novel of the Year), but he embraced the DIY options early and found indie-publishing success as well, his novella, Bye Bye Baby becoming a top ten bestseller on Amazon. Al is also a literary agent for Jenny Brown Associates, co-founder of the digital publishing company Blasted Heath, and a freelance editor for several British and American publishers, and his sage and generous advice have made him somewhat of a mentor to many authors, regardless of whether they’re traditionally published, indie published, or both.

Guthrie initially self-published digital editions of his crime novels Two-Way Split and Kiss Her Goodbye, in the US after seeing his client John Rector’s success with self-publishing:

“I started to look into the market a lot more closely because of John’s success with his debut novel, The Grove. And I liked what I saw. Not only did digital publishing expose an author to a new readership, but I did some calculations and discovered that a self-published book priced at $1.25 on Kindle would pay the author almost as much in royalties as a typical mass market paperback at $5.99. I wasn’t sure that there was a huge readership out there, but on the other hand, the chances were that anyone who spent a few hundred dollars (they were more expensive back then) on an e-reader was going to be a heavy reader and liable to buy a lot of books. So I thought maybe they’d take a chance on an author they hadn’t tried before, especially if the price was low. Things took off for me in early 2011, which is when the UK Kindle market really opened up.”

After rejection by traditional publishers, Ed James took his career into his own hands. He self-published his Edinburgh-based Scott Cullen crime series  and hit the bestseller charts, enabling him to give up his corporate IT job to live the dream as a full-time crime author:

“Back in 2009, I sent off my finished book to about 40 literary agents. Three or four wanted to read it. I polished it up then sent it off before waiting three months for the inevitable rejections. For a while I got really angry about the rejection and didn’t write a word for 18 months. A couple of years down the line and things had moved on. The whole Amazon/Kindle thing had come out of nowhere. Suddenly it was possible to self-publish. There were guys out there doing it and making millions. I thought there was nothing to be lost. I published the book, started writing the sequel and, within a year, I had four books on Kindle. Somehow they crept into the bestsellers’ list. The first one has been downloaded 290,000 times.”

Thriller Award-winning US author and screenwriter Alexandra Sokoloff was doing well in traditional publishing — but not as well as some of her author friends who were experimenting with indie publishing. So she took a chance by self-publishing her Huntress Moon crime series - and made the bestseller charts as well as double her usual advance from traditional publishers in just the first two months of publication.

In fact, self-published crime fiction often sells as well and even better than traditionally published crime fiction. Major e-publishing platforms (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple i-Books, Kobo, Smashwords) have promotional opportunities built in to their systems, which entrepreneurial indie authors can use to find an audience whether or not they have been published before. Indie authors can earn 70% of the RRP from these e-platforms, as opposed to (typically) 25% of the net receipts (ie, the RRP minus the vendor’s cut) from traditional publishers, and indie publishing gives authors the control over book pricing, which can lead to significantly greater sales and significantly expanded readerships.  And e-publishing platforms, particularly Amazon, allow UK authors to make their books instantly available not just in the UK but also to the enormous US market, as well as Germany, France, Australia, and a growing number of other countries – with no additional work involved.

These days a huge number of authors consider themselves “hybrids” – selling their books through both traditional and indie publishing. For example, James will continue to self-publish his Cullen books, but is very close to having a traditional publishing deal for a new series based on the success of his first series; and Sokoloff just sold the rights to her Huntress Moon crime series to Amazon’s Thomas & Mercer imprint, while keeping the rights to her supernatural thrillers. Traditionally published authors with out-of-print backlists have found new life for their novels and new income from going digital. And aspiring authors should note that agents and traditional publishers routinely track the success of indie authors, making indie publishing a viable alternative to the traditional query-agent-editor route to publication. 

James says: “A lot of novice writers still tend to think of the Writers and Artists Yearbook as the primary method of getting an agent whereas I think it's genuinely changing...” In fact, it was Guthrie who approached James to offer representation, rather than James querying the agency himself.

Guthrie explains: “If you can establish that there’s a market out there for your books, it can be a big help, no question. Selling tens of thousands of books, backed by lots of Amazon reviews with a high average rating, is a pretty clear indicator that there’s a big readership for your writing. Which is the kind of safety net risk-averse publishers tend to find attractive. Also, if an author has a good number of sales through their own efforts, a potential publisher is going to know that they’re very likely dealing with a canny marketer who knows what their readers want and knows how to reach them. A good publisher can take that to the next level.”

The audience is welcome to join the authors in an informal chat session after the panel and book signings, to discuss specifics of self-publishing and promotional strategies.

By phone: 01786 27 4000

More about the authors and their books at:

Friday, August 29, 2014

Working the algorithm – the Huntress Moon 99c sale

My 99 cent sale of Huntress Moon is on - #1 in Mysteries, #1 in Thrillers in the Nook store, today! - so if you haven’t gotten a copy yet, this is your last chance at this price before Thomas & Mercer re-releases the book in the fall.

Amazon US    99c
Amazon UK    99p
Amazon DE    Eur .89
Paperback      $7.99

Nook US         99c
Nook UK         99p

"This interstate manhunt has plenty of thrills...  keeps the drama taut and the pages flying."   -- Kirkus Reviews

- An ITW Thriller Award Nominee for Best Original E Book Novel
- A Suspense Magazine Pick for Best Thriller of 2012
- A Huffington Post Books Pick for "Women You Should Be Reading" 2014

And I promised to post about promotional strategies. Which is going to take more than one post, but it’s good timing for me to muse about it, since I’m doing a digital publishing panel at Bloody Scotland in a couple of weeks, with successful UK indie authors Allan Guthrie and Ed James. I also recently did an e publishing panel at the WGAw (that’s the screenwriters’ union), where authors Lee Goldberg, Christiana Miller and producer Lane Shefter Bishop and I talked about e publishing strategies.

Of course, what everyone wanted to hear about was promotion – what works?

I’m not going to dwell on the things that SHOULD be self-evident. Like, OF COURSE you have to have a great book that you’ve had professionally edited and formatted and that other people think is great. Although I will say that the more books you have, the more likely you are to have success at indie publishing. The medium favors fast writers (which I am not! On the other hand, I prefer my books with layers of meaning, which takes some time.)

There are lots of ongoing promotional strategies that all writers do to some extent or another. A great website with SEO (search engine optimization), presence on social media sites that is personal and engaging rather than spammy and homicide-inducing, maintaining an opt-mailing list of your readers for newsletters, blogging, guest blogging, appearing at conferences and libraries, etc.

But today I’m going to talk about a specific kind of promotion: Working the algorithm.

That is, using the tools that the big online bookstores – Amazon, Barnes & Noble, et al, have, to get THEM to promote your books for you.

The principle of these promotional strategies is co-op. It’s interesting to me how many authors and readers have no idea what co-op is. When you walk into a bookstore and are confronted with a front table full of books, you may be assuming that these are chosen by the bookstore/booksellers. Oh, no. No, no. That is co-op: prime real estate that is paid for, handsomely, by publishers, who use large amounts of money to get the authors they want to push, up front and center. It’s a strategy of self-fulfilling prophecy: publishers make books bestsellers by making customers THINK they’re bestsellers.

New and midlist authors rarely get a chance at that co-op space. But indie authors have a shot at that front table placement in the online bookstores - through what is known as the algorithm: the Amazon algorithm, or the Barnes & Noble algorithm.

Disclaimer:  My brain has gone into deep freeze at the idea of advanced mathematical concepts ever since I was sexually harassed by a creepy Algebra teacher back in high school. Sad but true. I got my revenge in The Space Between, though....

And technical articles like this one just make my eyes glaze over.

So I’m actually not the best person in the world to explain the concept of the algorithm, and I’m sure other people out there have done it better. 

But here’s how it works practically: If you drop the price of your ebook and use some of the tools out there to sell enough copies of that book in a short period of time (or give enough away), you can drive your book onto the online bookstore bestseller sublists and then onto the main bestseller lists on Amazon and Barnes & Noble, then Amazon’s/B&N’s algorithm will start automatically recommending your book in multiple places in their online stores and newsletters to create exponential sales for you. (Nothing drives sales like having your book listed in that Amazon e mail you may have signed up for that appears in your mailbox every few days: Looking for something in Mystery & Suspense?)

Yes, there are other online platforms and bookstores out there, but I’m just going to be talking about Amazon and Barnes & Noble because they’re the biggest, and that’s where my experience is.

Amazon in particular gives you some fantastic free tools to help you launch these promotions - if you make your ebook exclusive to Amazon for three months via the Kindle Select program.

-       - Giveaways: during those three months you can give away your book for free for up to five days.

-       - Kindle Countdown: you can drop the price of your books and have Amazon count it down for you on the book page and on their lists to create urgency for the sale.

-       - Hot New Release list:  if you understand that one of your VERY best promotional opportunities is in the first four weeks after you hit “publish,” then you can time your promo efforts to take advantage of that window of opportunity. I always urge people who are just starting with indie publishing NOT to make their books available until they fully understand this concept, because you only get one shot at this list with each book.

I’ve talked about Kindle Select Giveaways before, but let me just say part of it again for those who may be just joining us:

A lot of inexperienced writers – and some traditionally published writers who are thinking of self-publishing - balk at giveaways. How can anyone possibly make any money at this if we’re giving books away? Traditionally published authors also tend to look down on indie writers for doing giveaways). The fact is, giveaways are always part of the marketing process of a book. Traditional publishers give away thousands of copies of each book they publish to create word of mouth and generate reviews – and build readership. As drug dealers have known since the beginning of  - drug dealing - that you need to give a little something away at first to get your potential customers hooked. But once they're hooked, the money just rolls in, a regular income stream. 
It's exactly the same way with books, which are after all just another form of addiction. Come on, you know it's true.
Wouldn't you pay full price right now for the newest book by one of your favorite authors?  I know I would. Mo Hayder, Tana French, Nicci French, Lee Child, Mr. King... I'd pay extra to get any one of them NOW. 

Well, that's what these giveaways are about. A big giveaway is a great way to hook new readers on one of your books, and like good addicts, those readers will then buy all your other books, and you build your readership.

I’ve done Kindle giveaways before with great success – it’s how Huntress Moon became an Amazon bestseller. But that was partly because two years ago Amazon counted those free downloads as a partial sale, which kept books up in the ranks even after the price reverted to normal. The algorithm for counting free books has changed, so authors I know who are running giveaways aren’t getting anywhere near the same results as you could get in the beginning of the program.

Even so, the Kindle Select giveaways are still fantastically worth doing – because there is NO OTHER WAY an author can possibly reach 10,000, 20,000 or sometimes many more potential new readers in two or three days - for free. 

This time I decided to do a 99 cent sale of Huntress Moon instead of a giveaway because I wanted to target both Amazon and Barnes & Noble, to expand my readership for the Huntress series. I figure Thomas & Mercer will be taking over the Amazon advertising when they launch the series, but I have a chance on my own to promote the series to Nook readers (I’ll report more on that after the sale.)

But whether you decide to do a giveaway or a sale, there is one thing you MUST understand.

It’s not enough to just set up a promotion on Amazon via your KDP dashboard and expect the downloads and sales to start rolling in. You need to do significant promotion on your own to make this kind of promotion work.

Now, theoretically you could schedule a giveaway or Kindle Countdown and work your mailing list and social media contacts to generate enough sales on your own to make the lists - without spending a dime. Theoretically.

But for most indie authors it’s almost impossible to generate that kind of sale without paid help from some of the the various paid advertising sites out there. There’s a whole infrastructure of advertising sites that make their own money off charging authors for promotions that will help them work the Amazon and Barnes & Noble algorithms.

And it always seems that there are a couple of specific book advertising sites out there, or a combinations of sites, that authors who use this strategy agree are the most effective. The top sites change, so you have to do your research and keep informed about which sites are getting the job done.

These days it’s Bookbub. Bookbub charges a premium for its exceptionally effective service, and I’ve never heard anyone say it wasn’t worth every penny. What Bookbub has is a subscription list of well over a million readers who have requested news of sales in their preferred genres. So when Bookbub puts your book in its newsletter, you’re getting it out to a targeted audience of avid readers. You will pay hundreds of dollars for a listing, but will almost certainly make that investment back in a day of sales, and then your book continues to generate sales, and profit, because of its elevated sales rank. Because again, once you make it on to the bestseller lists of the online bookstores, they will be doing the bulk of your promoting for you automatically.

The catch is, Bookbub is very selective about the books it chooses to promote. These days I hear that your book has to have at least 100 customer reviews and a four star average rating to even be considered (to be clear, that’s not what Bookbub says in its policy statement, it’s what authors I know who use it seem to have noticed).

So for relatively new indie authors, Bookbub is probably something to investigate and work toward, rather than count on. But there are other book advertising sites out there that don’t require such a high threshold of reviews but can also generate sales, and I’ll do another post exploring some of them once I have collated results. This post is already long enough!

To sum it up: Paid advertising sites boost sales of your book to get you on the Amazon/B&N (etc) bestseller charts, and then Amazon/ B&N (etc.) will start advertising for you free of charge.

So, authors – have you used Bookbub? Are there other paid advertising sites you find effective?  And most importantly – have you come across good posts/articles that explain how the algorithm works? I’m always looking for good stuff to link to!

And readers: were you aware of co-op? Do you feel manipulated?  J

- Alex

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Thomas & Mercer has acquired the Huntress/FBI thrillers

A lot of you have been wondering when in the world Book 3 of the Huntress series is ever coming out.  I know. I know. I know. I actually finished the book quite a while ago, but I've been negotiating with Thomas & Mercer (Amazon's mystery and thriller imprint) for the series, and I can finally make this announcement. 

T&M has bought the rights to the series, and is going to re-launch all three Huntress books in January - including the world premiere of Cold Moon.

I truly, deeply apologize for the wait. Believe me, it's hard for me, too! But this is the difference between a traditional publishing schedule and the freedom of indie publishing - it takes a lot longer to get all the gears in motion. As a devoted TV binge watcher, I fully understand and am 100% behind the strategy of launching the three books together as a binge read. Thomas & Mercer really gets the uniqueness of the series and I know they'll be awesome at marketing.  And I'm thrilled that the series will be able to reach a much larger audience. I think the stories and characters deserve that.

I also know that a lot of you will be wondering why I would want to turn around and take a traditional publishing deal when I've been able to do so well with indie publishing. 

Well, first, Thomas & Mercer is a traditional publisher with an indie mindset. They get the new landscape of publishing (partly because they're creating it). And who wouldn't want the marketing genius of Amazon behind them?  

I've written here often about how important I think it is to diversify. Having a mix of indie published titles and traditionally published titles is to me the same kind of strategy as diversifying a financial portfolio. No one knows what the publishing landscape is going to look like a year from now.  Personally I've reached a happy point that I have so many books out that it's hard to manage all of them on my own and still have the time I need to be doing the most important thing: writing. Letting Thomas & Mercer handle the Huntress series will - hopefully - free up some time for me to launch the new series I'm working on (which I refer to as "the Scottish book") as well as continue the Huntress series with Book Four (which will be available very soon after Cold Moon, without the long wait.

Again, I deeply apologize for the wait - but I think Cold Moon is going to be worth it.  In the meantime, Huntress Moon, Blood Moon and the audiobook of Huntress Moon will remain available. 

In fact, you can pick up Huntress Moon for Kindle or Nook today through Thursday for just 99 cents (and the UK and worldwide equivalents).  The paperback is also on sale.

This is the last time the book will be available at a price like this, so if you already have it, please feel free to share the news!   

Amazon US    99c
Amazon UK   99p
Amazon DE   Eur .89
Paperback      $7.99

Nook US        99c
Nook UK       99p

"This interstate manhunt has plenty of thrills...  keeps the drama taut and the pages flying."   -- Kirkus Reviews

- An ITW Thriller Award Nominee for Best Original E Book Novel
- A Suspense Magazine Pick for Best Thriller of 2012
- A Huffington Post Books Pick for "Women You Should Be Reading" 2014

FBI Special Agent Matthew Roarke is closing in on a bust of a major criminal organization in San Francisco when he witnesses an undercover member of his team killed right in front of him on a busy street, an accident Roarke can't believe is coincidental. His suspicions put him on the trail of a mysterious young woman who appears to have been present at each scene of a years-long string of "accidents" and murders, and who may well be that most rare of killers: a female serial.

Roarke's hunt for her takes him across three states...while in a small coastal town, a young father and his five-year old son, both wounded from a recent divorce, encounter a lost and compelling young woman on the beach and strike up an unlikely friendship without realizing how deadly she may be.

As Roarke uncovers the shocking truth of her background, he realizes she is on a mission of her own, and must race to capture her before more blood is shed.

Book II in the Huntress/FBI series, Blood Moon, is also available $3.99 (2.45 UK)

Amazon US
Amazon UK
Amazon DE

Nook US
Nook UK

Twenty-five years have passed since a savage killer terrorized California, massacring three ordinary families before disappearing without a trace.

The haunted child who was the only surviving victim of his rampage is now wanted by the FBI  for brutal crimes of her own, and Special Agent Matthew Roarke is on an interstate manhunt for her, despite his conflicted sympathies for her history and motives.

But when his search for her unearths evidence of new family slayings, the dangerous woman Roarke seeks - and wants - may be his only hope of preventing another bloodbath.

And the audiobook of Huntress Moon is also available, narrated by multiple Audie Award nominee RC Bray


As always,  I'll keep you posted on the sale - the promotional strategies I used and what I find to be effective.

So authors, what about you? Are you diversifying? Does the hybrid life make sense to you?
And readers - are you going to kill me?  (Hopefully not!)


Monday, August 18, 2014

You just have to do it (lessons from the Reduced Shakespeare Company)

One of the great pleasures of living in Scotland is the month-long Edinburgh Festival Fringe. A pleasure if you don’t actually live in Edinburgh, that is. Residents talk about the Fringe as they would about a plague, which I suppose it is: 20,000+ performers and God only knows how many tourists from all over the world descending on a really quite small (and ancient) city center (that’s centre over here), for the world’s largest arts festival (and the Fringe is only ONE of the festivals). It’s a riot of buskers, street theater, acrobats, jugglers, musicians, crafts, food, bagpipes, and general mayhem on the streets - before you even get to the 3000+ shows a day in various commercial venues.

So we went in last week to see my friends Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor of the Reduced Shakespeare Company in their new show:
 The Complete History of Comedy (Abridged).  

It’s a great show, with the RSC’s usual combination of a razor-sharp survey of whatever subject they’re ostensibly skewering, disguised in laugh-till-it-hurts comedy, physical, satirical and intellectual. You can enjoy this show on multiple levels, and actually learn something about the development of the art and practice of comedy along the way. It’s at the Pleasance Grand until August 25, then touring the US, UK and Ireland, and I highly recommend it (here’s the schedule).

But I enjoyed it on a whole different level, too.

This was really my present and past colliding, as I have been going to see RSC shows since the genesis of the troupe at the California Renaissance Pleasure Faire, where the RSC’s first full-length show was written and for quite a long time performed by my friends (since college, eek!) Adam Long, Daniel Singer and Jess Winfield (who is also the author of My Name is Will, a brilliant novel of sex, drugs, and Shakespeare.)

And maybe when I say “present,” I really mean “future,” because along with working on Book 4 of the Huntress series, I’ve started on a new series which I’m going to set partly in Scotland.

I know. What could I possibly be thinking?

But it’s been very hard for me to envision a series that could follow (or run concurrent with) the Huntress/FBI thrillers

This is a problem I now realize long-time authors face. Some readers will follow you anywhere. Myself, if I love an author, I read everything by that author: series, standalone, it doesn't matter. I may like some books better than others, but it’s the themes that an author is working with that really draw me, and authors bring their personal themes into every book they write.

Other readers, though, may be so specifically keen on certain aspects of a series - the characters, the genre mix, the level of suspense, the arena – that they may well not be interested in something different from that author.

And I have to admit there are a few of my favorite authors who have books or a series that I’ve just never been able to get into.

So the problem with deciding on a new series is how to write something that will sustain you creatively as an author (since we’re the ones who have to live in these worlds for years at a stretch) and that will hopefully also draw your readers who have become attached to the last series you wrote. Obviously there are also always commercial considerations, if you’re doing this for a living, as I am.

So I needed to find a series that has the depth and thematic resonance that I think the Huntress books have, and the range of interesting characters, and the locational aspect that I know my readers enjoy - the Huntress books are in one sense a road trip and California especially is a character in the novels.

So here I am living in Scotland. And people are jealous. I mean, I get death threats. Mostly people are kidding – I think – but Scotland is a fantasy to a lot of Americans, in lots of different ways. 

As an American actually living here, I see both the fantasy and the reality (sort of reality). I think I can write about that really well, and bring my American readers into a fascinating and stunningly beautiful, mysterious world - in the context of a crime series that will allow me to explore different sides of my own personal theme: What can good people do about the evil in the world?

It’s an exciting thought… and terrifying. Like paralyzingly terrifying.

So watching the RSC show I realized what I was fretting was the enormity of doing this story justice (this is my eternal fret, actually). And a line leaped to mind - my favorite moment from the RSC’s Complete Works of Wm. Shakespeare (Abridged). My favorite moment in another show full of laugh-till-you're-sick moments comes just before the intermission, when Adam flat out refuses to go any further, because the one play left that the boys haven't yet butchered is Hamlet. And Adam just doesn't think he can do it justice (“There are just so many words…”). 
Jess (now Austin) lifts a sobbing Adam from the floor, assuring him - "We don't have to do it justice. We just have to do it."

And that's the point I have to remember in venture into my new series. Sometimes you don't have to do it justice (although you always hope justice eventually will be done). Sometimes you just have to do it.

So authors – have you had the experience of having to follow up a successful series? How did you know when you had the right idea?

And readers – are you willing to follow a favorite author into a new series? Or would you rather your favorite authors stick to their tried-and-true characters?

- Alex


August contest!

I've added a new feature to my website: a monthly contest. You'll be able to enter for a chance to win signed books, audiobooks, gift cards, and other giveaways, which I intend to get pretty creative about. (For example, I have extra tickets to a showing of Benedict Cumberbatch in Hamlet, coming up next year....)

You can find contest news by clicking on the contests! link on the website nav bar (to the left), and/or you can sign up for another new feature, a monthly newsletter that will have the upcoming contests and freebies listed. 

Click to go to the contests page.

Click to sign up for my newsletter.