Lori Pollard-Johnson: "To Kindle or not to Kindle"
_Lori Pollard-Johnson delivers tasty tales of mystery such as Toxic Torte, available through Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Smashwords. She holds a Master of Arts in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill University and here tells the tale of how she was converted to epublishing without a publisher.
I’ve always loathed the idea of self-publishing. It reeked of narcissism, and often, the author’s attempt to shortcut through the woods of publishing reality. So I expected poor prose, weak conventions and a Swiss cheese plot from the self-published on Kindle. Perhaps there is a lot of that out there. But there is also a large–and growing–faction of writers willing to invest the same level of time, energy and money into producing their book as they did writing and revising it. The end result is a quality e-reading experience many, many readers enjoy at a hugely discounted price.
My conversion began last July at the PNWA (Pacific Northwest Writer’s Association) conference in Seattle. The word Kindle buzzed in every meeting room, every sun-starved klatch gathering outside. I decided to investigate.
My first step in e-publishing reconnaissance was to query my writer’s groups. In the first group, one member planned to Kindle with recently re-acquired rights to her romance, but knew of two others in another group who were in the process of uploading. In my second group, one member had been an early Kindle pioneer, and in the third, no one even knew Kindle existed. Mixed results, to be sure, but intriguing.
Next, I researched. Of course I found J.A. Konrath’s blog; it inspired me, but knowing the level of marketing he’d done on his earlier, traditionally published books, his success didn’t surprise me. Still, I wondered if results for writers like me who are traditionally published, but in a different genre, could reach even a fraction of his numbers. I jotted some figures: a recent SinC (Sisters in Crime) poll reflected 20% of mystery readers read e-books, but since no one, except perhaps Jeff Bezo, knows how many Kindlers are out there, that statistic is virtually meaningless. I also knew, however, that Kindle users tended to be adults, and since almost half of adult readers read some version of mystery, I calculated a conservative potential readership of 10%. At the time of my speculation, J.A Konrath, a fellow mystery writer, had sold over 100,000 e-books from over twenty titles–primarily to Kindle users. If, I reasoned, I could reach one-twentieth of Konrath’s numbers (5,000 ebooks) at $2.99, with a net take-home of just over $2.00 a piece (not including sales outside UK and USA), I could make, over the duration of sales, $10,000.
I considered my current commission of $ .35/traditionally published book and immediately began plotting my Kindle experiment.
I retrieved a culinary mystery from the proverbial bottom drawer and gave it a thorough reading with a couple of questions in mind: First, are culinary mysteries still selling?; and second, is it good enough? The first question was answered unequivocally “yes” by a quick perusal of online booksellers and a stroll through a couple of major book stores in my area. The second required some honest reflection. I pulled out the marketing history of my novel and recalled four near sales to small publishers. Of these, one wanted a major setting change that would have eliminated my character’s inner conflict, and hence the story; another wanted exclusive first right of refusal for ten years; a third had bizarre internal office communication issues that I believed foreshadowed larger organizational problems at best; and the last required a tremendous marketing plan that I simply could not, as a full-time college professor/administrator, promise. I believed these nibbles signaled “good enough.”
With these answers in mind, I contracted with my son’s friend for cover art while writer friends reviewed my manuscript yet again. By the time the cover arrived in my e-box, the edits had been made, formatting was complete, and I knew I wanted to market it as the first in a series entitled “Just Desserts Mysteries.” I also had a distribution plan: upload to Kindle first for sheer ease and volume of sales, followed by Nook because it had just become available at retail in Macy’s, and Smashwords third despite an overwhelming self-published flavor of the website.
My results so far have surpassed my expectations. I uploaded in late September, and after the initial friends and family purchases, ended up at a one-a-day rate of sale. Not a huge blip on a monthly income level, but if held in a special “Kindle” account, a nice annual bump. November matched the previous six weeks, but with a far greater percentage sold to non-friends and family. December sales, however, with its holiday buying season, grew to 200% over November. January’s numbers rose even further to approximately 250% of December’s sales, and at the time of this writing, mid-February, I’m seeing yet another 200% sale through from January’s numbers. Nook and Smashwords sales are minimal, but welcome. What this turns out to be in approximate dollars is a cell phone bill for December, a car payment for January, and a rental house payment for February.
And all of this is without a publisher.
At this point, most people want to know what it takes to climb aboard the e-train. First and foremost, you need a quality product. Readers are smart; they know what they want to read. A poor product isn’t a bargain at any price. Second, pay someone to create a really beautiful, e-reader friendly piece of cover art. It’s that important. Third, be judicious and smart about your “cloud tags.” These are the Boolean-like reference words that people use to find your book. My book uses “culinary,” “Seattle,” “cozy,” and yes, even “chocolate” and “poison.” Fourth, buy your own book (you can download the Kindle app onto your computer), and then observe which books are being purchased with yours. Strengthen those connections by purchasing those books, too. Consider purchasing books very unlike your own book as well to create a showing on those books’ product pages, also. Fifth, consider creating a print version of your book as support. Nothing helps to sell a book than having your mother, father, sister, brother or great Aunt Trudy hauling your book around. And last, be very honest with yourself about why you want your book out there. For me, I saw e-publishing as a means to sell directly to the customer, something every other artist is able to do.
So will I e-publish again? Possibly.
Right now, I have a request from a well-known agent for an angsty YA. It will be a hard sale due to the nature of book sales in general and the subject matter in particular. If he does take on the book, it may mean re-writes, a year to year-and-a-half delay for royalties, and time spent promoting. On the other hand, if I upload to a rapidly expanding Kindle audience, I could see sales in as little as six weeks.
It will be a tough decision. I’ll keep you posted.